Nothing to see here, move along, move along…

From the Post Register

The Uneasy Chair – Editing the Post Register
By Dean Miller

A dead body lay on the steps of the church adjacent to Temple View Elementary School in Idaho Falls Friday morning. It was in plain view of kids who were walking to school and being dropped off behind the church. Principal Natalie Peters saw fit to send out a letter to parents alerting them to what their kids might have seen. It’s hard to imagine a more public spot, but the Idaho Falls Police Department decided this was nobody’s business and released no report. As I write this, all we’ve been told is that it was a male. So, if you live near Temple View, should you worry about the neighborhood your kid walks through? Do police know for sure if it’s a suicide or a murder? Are they the least bit interested in what the public may have observed in the area leading up to the death? Nothing to see, here. Move along, folks. None of your business.

Saturday night, Rexburg police suppressed information about a pedestrian killed by a car. Witnesses and neighbors confirmed somone had been killed, but the police dummied up, refusing to provide even the basics. It turns out two women were hit: one killed, one badly injured. If your son walks that street to get to classes at BYUI, wouldn’t you want to know what happened? If you drive that street, would you want to know how to avoid a similar tragedy? Tough. Rexburg’s police department has decided none of it is any of your business.

A car badly injured a Rexburg pedestrian in June. And a year ago, a driver killed a pedestrian in Rexburg. So, one would have to be monumentally indifferent not to wonder if there’s a public safety problem with Rexburg’s street design. As of this morning, the Rexburg Police Department would only say “It’s common knowledge” someone died. Which is sort of like saying, “Believe what you want. This is none of your business.”

In neither case, did we insist on knowing or printing the names of the deceased. We understand that notification of next of kin is the first priority. We simply sought verification or clarification of what callers were telling us. But the area’s police have a retentive turn of mind when it comes to involving the public in the public safety work that is carried out at public expense and under the laws and constitution of the land, which give the American public the responsibility to oversee public servants.

Stay tuned. We’ll continue searching for alternate sources of credible information and report appropriate details to the public.

While it’s true that some readers have a prurient interest in public deaths, the vast majority simply want to be accurately informed about fatalities in their neighborhood.

Our ethics code places the privacy of a suicide victim’s family ahead of the public’s right to know, except when the suicide somehow endangers the public or occurs in a public place. The applicable section reads:

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
  • Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
  • Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. We don’t print the names of people who commit suicide, unless they commit suicide in a public place, are involved in a murder/suicide, or are public officials or public figures.

What’s notable is that Idaho’s pros, the Idaho State Police, take a vastly different approach. When they investigate a death, they promptly release appropriate information, which is a service to the public and also encourages the public to call in with useful information. Police departments would do well to emulate their example.

Dean Miller is the editor of the Post Register in Idaho Falls. This article first appeared on his blog, “The Uneasy Chair – Editing the Post Register.”

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