Journalists’ duty to inform sits uneasily with their duty to recognize now and then that the public knows all it needs to and it’s time to turn off the spigot. Journalists learn to balance these contrary responsibilities.
On December 2, at the request of police, the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park reported on its website that a local woman, Alicia Yaus, a divorced mother of three, had been missing since November 28. The story described the woman and also the car she was driving the last time anyone saw her.
A few hours later the paper reported that the woman’s body had just been found in her car, which was parked behind an industrial building in Forest Park. A toxicology investigation would be conducted. Two days later the Wednesday Journal reported that the death was being investigated as a suicide.
“If we’d stopped there,” says Dan Haley, editor and publisher of the Wednesday Journal, “in my mind we’d have done responsible community journalism. But we didn’t stop there. A reporter and an editor made seriously bad judgments.”
Next Haley’s paper published—”without any sense of the impact on the family and the community,” he says—the sort of specific details of the suicide that normally come nowhere close to seeing the light of day. The story was posted online December 8, and the reaction was immediate and overwhelming. “This is way too much information that we did not need to know,” was the first response and one of the gentlest. “This ‘news’ should be taken down,” someone added. “I hope it is not appearing in the print addition.”
But it was. The weekly print edition had already come off the presses, and Haley felt there was no turning back. He didn’t read the story before it was posted, but it had been included in the e-mail to readers promoting the print edition, and Haley soon read it there. Where are we running this story? he asked, and when he was told an inside page, thought, well, at least that’s better than page one. He says he ordered the story taken off-line—it was posted there about an hour, he estimates—and to the stream of comments reacting to the story he added one of his own: he announced that the story was down and apologized to the Yaus family “for adding to the pain of recent days.”
The next day he posted a much longer apology.
But because of what Haley called “practical considerations” involving postal deadlines and slot times at his printer, the print edition was distributed as is. It wasn’t available long. “Our family is spending the night after her funeral driving around to buy up all your goddamn print papers to try to protect her family,” a reader told the Wednesday Journal on its website. This family didn’t act alone. “Some of the feistier people were going to the machines and paying a dollar and taking them all out,” says a friend of mine who lives in Oak Park. “I went to the White Hen and bought every paper and threw it in the trash.”
In my friend’s view, anyone close to the Yaus family already knew the specifics and didn’t need to be told them, and they were none of anybody else’s business. My friend is a therapist herself; she has a sharper than average awareness of emotional suffering that can become too great to bear. She recognized the respect that the Wednesday Journal normally pays it. Peter Traczyk, a member of her church who sat on the village’s elementary school board, shot himself last February in a forest preserve. The Wednesday Journal’s coverage had been straightforward but delicate—Haley remembers it as “pretty much pitch-perfect”—and he’d defended his paper against criticism that it hadn’t been forthcoming enough. “Our policy is that we will report on a death by suicide if it is a public figure or takes place in a public place,” he’d written then. “But beyond being an elected official, Mr. Traczyk was also a father and husband and soccer coach in a small community and that reality deserves respect and some level of privacy.”
Ten months later, Haley’s paper violated these principles. “That’s what makes this situation so incredibly frustrating,” Haley told me.
The death of Alicia Yaus was different in that the original reporting when she was missing imposed an obligation on Haley’s paper to follow up when her body was found. But this slope is far from being too slippery to negotiate. How did it happen? I asked Haley. “It happened for all the reasons things like this happen these days,” he replied, speaking of things that go wrong at newspapers. “Too much effort to push copy out, too few people, not enough eyes. Fundamentally it happened because we made a fundamental error in judgment about what’s appropriate to publish.”
“We completely screwed it up,” he added. “An apology was warranted and necessary.”
I’m not a fan of apologies because they so seldom convey any sense of genuine regret. But I admire Haley—this old story of mine helps explain why—and it didn’t surprise me that his apology is different. “While factually accurate and based on public information,” Haley wrote, “the article was completely tone deaf as it included details related to her death that had no purpose in being published. The inclusion of this information was contrary to our editorial policies and, more importantly, fully at odds with the essential values of trust and respect which we work hard each day to build with our readers.”
Clearly there was a vital miscommunication internally and for that I take full responsibility.
I recognize the intense pain we have caused both this family and the wider community with our reporting. I offer our deepest apology and regret.
This is damage that cannot be easily undone. There is pain here that we have intensified.
For those of you who have called me to express your upset, sent an e-mail, posted on Facebook or have added comments to our online coverage, I offer my thanks. We made a serious error in editorial judgment and the criticism is deserved.
Once more my apologies to the family and our community.
I told Haley I thought the public response to this apology, as posted online beneath it, seemed unduly unforgiving. He corrected me. “It’s OK, it’s fine,” he said. He wouldn’t have cut himself any slack either. “I don’t think I would have been the person to jump into that thread of comments and say ‘He’s a pretty good guy.’ That wasn’t the moment to do it.”
Two years ago Haley wrote a column telling readers about his daughter Mariah, a teenager who 11 months earlier “hit a wall of pain and anguish and asked us to take her to an in-patient psychiatric facility.” Mariah’s troubles had led him to a couple of important discoveries. The first was “the number of colleagues who came to me and wrote to me about mental health issues in their own families.” The second was “the fix we are in with mental health. The stigma remains.”
“We should think and talk about it,” Haley wrote then, “and since the spring, at least, Mariah has been asking me when I was going to write about all this. It’s too personal, I’d say. It’s your business, I’d say. And she’d say that other kids and other parents need to know.”
Today I find Haley trying to work all this out in his head. “I would argue— no, I wouldn’t argue—I would say I’m not sure,” he tells me; he’s not sure “our policy on how we report suicides doesn’t need to be rethought. I think there are stigma issues related to mental health that don’t do any of us any good.”
It’s not that Haley thinks “we should get away from doing this [reporting on suicides] in a way that’s highly sensitive.” He doesn’t. But he seems to feel journalists shrink from suicide, as if what passes for sensitivity is actually just squeamish avoidance of the subject.
“I’m rambling here,” said Haley, and he was. What I heard between the lines of his ramble was deep regret that his paper’s clumsy coverage of the death of Alicia Yaus had been so unworthy. She deserved better than the graphic details the Wednesday Journal reduced her death to. And the Wednesday Journal knew better.