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Journalistic Dilemma

OK, this is one of those "what would you do, and why?" scenarios.

My hometown newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot, has a short article online today about the death of a man who used to be the general manager of the dominant local TV station.

By all accounts Mario Hewitt was a nice guy and well liked at WVEC-TV, Hampton Roads, Virginia's ABC affliate, the station he managed.

Hewitt died of cancer recently in Houston, where he'd moved in the late 1990s after resigning his job at WVEC.

The short story in the Pilot identifies Hewitt, quotes former colleagues saying he was a great guy, mentions his resignation back in the day....and mentions that while he cited "personal reasons" for resigning, he had been charged with DUI two weeks prior to resigning.

A reader commenting on the story scolded the Pilot and said they should have left out the DUI part and that the story would have still been "truthful" without it.

Since the day I started reporting full-time 12 years ago - almost 13 - readers have asked me: "Why did you leave such-and-such out of your article?" or "Why did you include this?"

In a blog post a few days ago, I used as an example a story about an article I wrote last fall, in which I mentioned that a neighborhood hotel had been visited by police more than 300 times last year.

One blog friend who commented on that post expressed sadness for the hotel owner whom my blog friend apparently believed had succumbed to the economy and was struggling to maintain the place.

But the truth is the hotel owner didn't succumb to the economy. The hotel has been overrun by prostitutes and Johns and drug dealers and abusers for upwards of 10 years. And the owner? She still lives in luxury in a wealthy community less than 10 miles aways and has rebuffed repeated police efforts to force her to clean the place up.

My point in explaining the hotel story further is there was no way for my blog friend to know there was more to the story than simply a failing hotel, if I didn't include it. There's always a back story, always something else that could be added to explain a scenario, or that could be left out.

When it comes to writing about people's deaths, I confess I used to be the biggest chicken, always that person who only reluctantly included details of the dead person's past indiscretions - unless, of course, those indiscretions define that person. If John Doe is a nice but plain guy his whole life, a devout church deacon, until at age 50 he decides to become a porn star or he decides to convert to Satanism and begin biting the heads off of goats, trust me. I'm gonna include that goat biting or porno in John Doe's obit. And if his friends and neighbors don't like it, they're gonna have to deal. Biting goats and doing porn may not be crimes, but when they're out of character for a person they become memorable.

 The other exception, of course, is when you're writing about a dead person who committed a terrible crime or multiple crimes. You have to include that stuff.

When I first started reporting, I had an editor who would read every obit I wrote - fortunately, I only had to write a few before moving on to writing mostly about living people and people who died as crime victims, not from natural causes -  and would ask "So what, this person was perfect?"

Then we'd do a dance in which I'd groan about feeling awkward about writing ill of the dead. And he'd parry my steps by arguing that if what good we do helps define us, then what bad we do helps define us too....even if it's one-time bad or just a smidgen of bad.

Eventually, he convinced me and I stopped fighting it. But to this day I still get that question: Why did you have to include that in your story?

You tell me. Don't tell me what you'd do if you were a journalist. Tell me what you think as a reader. Include the deceased gentleman's DUI, or leave it out? Why?

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Wavemancali

That one is a tough call.

Personally I would have left it out and this is why.

When someone decides to step into the public spotlight of fame, I think everything at that point becomes fair game for reporters. But I think for public servants the fame should only last for as long as they continue to serve.

Let's take Senator Craig for example.

If he had resigned from the Senate the day he pleaded guilty to the original incident, I think his obit should have been free and clear of any references to the to toe tapping fiasco.

He would have shown he was forgoing the public spotlight to keep some small vestige of privacy.

But now I think it should be trumpeted from the rooftops no matter where he goes and in any obit that anyone cares to publish.

The funny thing about it is, I don't think Craig should have been charged in the first place because I don't think inquiring about consensual sex should be a crime. If he had actually had sex in the washroom, ok that's public indecency, but picking up a guy and taking it to a hotel down the street? I don't see the harm in it.

I dislike Craig for trying to be above the law and casting the gay community in bad light.

Kevin

As a reader, I don't think the DUI has any bearing on the story. Including it in a sentence like, "Although he resigned for personal reasons, he HAD been convicted of a DUI a few weeks prior" leads the reader toward a certain mindset and conclusion.

If he had been convicted of a DUI 2 years prior, would it have been included in the story? 5 years? 8 years?

ɔıuʎɔıʇsɐɔɹɐs ǝɥʇ

I read the article and found the DUI statement seemed so out of place that had I not been made aware of it via your post, I might have thought the line had somehow erroneously entered the obit from another article. You know those darned computers and cut/paste.

Speculating that a man's personal reasons relate to a past DUI is an irresponsible exercise in yellow journalism.

The CEO

I agree with Kevin. Resigning for personal reasons should be left alone. Adding that he had been convicted of a DUI two weeks earlier seems to let the reader in on the secret of why he really resigned. Then it should have read "he was fired for drunk driving." Of course, his family might have sued, because he resigned for personal reasons, or was told to resign. If he was told to resign, then the powers that had him resign should have been satisfied to leave it at that.

Pamela

ref the motel owner: Why that B!!!!!tch. ha ha ha ha ha. yes. things are always convoluted.

regarding the obit: Well...my local newspaper said you couldn't libel a dead person -- so there you go

mark

When I read something I want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Indeed no one IS perfect, but if I am paying to read the truth I deserve to know the facts. I will pass my own judgement. The job of a journalist is to report the facts. If you dont do that then you are not a true journalist. Newspapers are dying because they sugar-coa the facts. The internet does not sugar-coat anything. The internet wins by default.

Rusty

First of all... thanks for your article as The Virginian-Pilot article troubled me too when I read it.

I used to work with Mario at WVEC and he was a great guy who treated his employees with respect... something we see less and less of in the corporate world. He hired people because they had the skills to do the work they were hired for and then let them do the work without a lot of unnecessary restrictions. The DUI mention in the article is just wrong and unfortunately just another example of the kind of bias The Virginian-Pilot regularly exhibits when it comes to local television coverage. It's sad that they felt the need to continue that "tradition" in an article of this nature.

Goodbye Mario. You were a good man.

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