Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Chicago Sun-Times Decides to Put Horrific Inside for Children's Sake

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Chicago Sun-Times Decides to Put Horrific Inside for Children's Sake

Article excerpt

For the second time in a year, the Chicago Sun-Times was alone among big-city newspapers in keeping a horrifying school shooting off its tabloid front pages.

In a front-page editor's note in its April 21 edition, editor-in-chief Nigel Wade says the paper did not play the Littleton, Colo., shooting on its front page "because we are concerned that such treatment could harm or frighten vulnerable children We see a danger that publicity surrounding such attacks could be contributing to the phenomenon."

The Sun-Times gave full coverage to the story on pages 2, 3, and 4, with four locally written sidebars including one by television critic Phil Rosenthal chastising Denver television station KUSA for broadcasting live a cell phone interview with a student hiding from the two alleged "Trenchcoat Mafia" gunmen.

While other U.S. dailies gave the story prominent play, ethical considerations played a role in choice of photos, story placement, and headline picks and feelings were mixed on how to present the story about the latest, most violent of school shootings in recent years.

Some newspapers went for the most shocking photos, while others avoided them, citing concerns about copycats.

For the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer, the issue wasn't whether to put the story on Page One but which photos to use. The newspaper picked an overhead photo of the school scene instead of an image of screaming kids that was widely used elsewhere but which executive editor Anders Gyllenhaal considered "voyeuristic." But he disagreed with the Sun- Times' decision to keep the story off Page One.

"I think what you're saying is, you're going to wish it didn't happen, we're going to control based on what you do and do not like," he says.

The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch heard from some offended callers after running a wire photo of a dead student on its front page, says Ben Marrison, managing editor for news. "No one likes to see dead kids, but this is a case where reality hurts."

While the Colorado shooting may have been an obvious front-pager, many editors say they have used restraint when reporting teen suicides and bomb threats, stories that have been linked to copycat incidents.

Anecdotal evidence supports the copycat phenomenon, says Deni Elliott, director of the University of Montana's Practical Ethics Center, who has written on the subject.

While supporting the Sun-Times' decision, she says, "It's a hard call because we desperately need to understand why these tragedies happen."

Sue Carter, journalism professor at Michigan State University, also lauded the newspaper's decision. "They have not backed off the coverage yet they considered the totality of the audience. The coverage is there, but it's not used to sell the paper."

Wade first took this contrarian journalism stance for the paper's coverage of the May 21, 1998 shooting at a high school in Springfield, Ore. That shooting in which a 15-year-old allegedly killed his parents, then went to the school and killed four students and a teacher while wounding 10 climatized a bloody school year in America that saw similar killings in Bethel, Ark.; Pearl, Miss.; and West Paducah, Ky.

Readers of all kinds parents especially warmly greeted that decision then and now, Wade says in an interview.

"Reader reaction is absolutely the same: My voice mail was full when I got here. The calls are running 20 to 1 in favor of what we did," Wade says. "There is very strong support. Parents tell us this gives them a choice of whether to let their children see this. …

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