Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Morning Call Could Use a Little More Sensitivity

"Name withheld pending notification of next of kin."

Should newspapers identify the victim of an alleged sexual assault? If not, then why is the defendant named? Why are they so skittish about the race of an at-large suspect who commits a violent crime? Doesn't that identifying characteristic help nail the bad guy?

We could argue 'till the Eagles win the Super Bowl over those questions. But I think we'd all agree that a newspaper should refrain, at least for a few hours, from identifying the victim of a tragedy or crime so that family and loved ones can be notified. In its Ethics Code, the Society of Professional Journalists says it simply. "Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect."

What's wrong with a little compassion?

A little over a month ago, in its rush to get the word out, the Morning Call trampled all over the privacy rights of one Allentown family in reporting the death of 78 year-old Margaret Schiffner, a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. Daughter MaryEllen, who discovered her dead mother and nearly dead sister, had the presence of mind to call family members on her way to the hospital. Too late! They had already seen the entire story, including some inaccuracies, on the Morning Call's web page. According to Mary Ellen, an hour had not yet passed from the time of her original tragic discovery.

In addition to failing to give Mary Ellen a little time to break the news to relatives, the story that did run is factually flawed, erroneously reporting that the decedent was a widow. But it provides a precise address in Allentown, and even notes the home was evacuated, making it an inviting target to potential vandals. Mary Ellen called to complain, and the paper cited the First Amendment. It never did correct its error. Mary Ellen then submitted a letter to the editor, and that was brushed aside.

Here's an edited version of what she'd like to say. I think the paper owes her an apology.

I am wondering where the Morning Call, Chicago Tribune or whatever name it is going to be by tomorrow, gets the right to violate my privacy by publishing personal information on the death of my mother and the condition of my sister after a tragic accident. I am referring to the Internet publication of the carbon monoxide article, published on 12/03/07. I was on my way to St. Luke's Hospital to be with my sister, calling my brother in Vermont, when my sister-in-law told me she ALREADY knew of the death of my mother, thanks to an Internet publication! It wasn't even an hour since I had found both of them. Mcall.com had it all over the Internet before I could notify any family members. Would you like to have your family and friends find out through the INTERNET that their mother, grandmother, friend had passed away? LET ALONE them stating that the residents who lived there would not be returning home for some time and leaving their home open to THEFT, HOME INVASION or ANYONE that feels the need to prey on INNOCENT VICTIMS? The reporter who published this should have been more alert and aware of what he was sharing with the public. How was I expected to return to the house to get clothes to bury my mother in without thinking someone may have been inside the house when I arrived? The report was a shame and a disgrace that will never be forgiven by me! To make matters worse, all the info they got was from neighbors who have no clue as to my mother's past or present.... For them to publish that my mother was a widow for 20 years was a joke! She was divorced in 1971 and I have the divorce decree to prove it,,,,,,,,,, So who gave this information and why wasn't the family given an opportunity to correct or acknowledge it?? Freedom of speech, Freedom of the press??? But no privacy is WRONG!! I wrote and mailed a letter to the editor about this and it was never published!! Why not?? Didn't they like it, or wasn't it any of their concern since it wasn't their family in this situation? Who released all this information and why weren't their names put on the website if they were so aware of what was going on???

I will never buy The Morning Call, subscribe to The Morning Call or even glance at the Morning Call again!!! Am I hurt??? You bet I am!! Am I still grieving?? You bet I am!!! Does The Morning Call care about me??? You bet they don't!!!! A person gets SHOT in this GREAT CITY but NO NAMES can be PUBLISHED until the next of kin is notified! A WORKER FALLS OF A SCAFFOLD at CITY HALL but no name is released! MY MOTHER DIES and my SISTER WAS IN CRITICAL CONDITION and their NAME and ADDRESS HITS THE PAPER in less then an hour??? WHERE ARE THEIR RIGHTS??? WHERE ARE MY RIGHTS??? WHERE IS MY FAMILY'S RIGHT to hear it first hand FROM A FAMILY MEMBER??? WHERE ARE YOUR RIGHTS??? The Morning Call doesn't seem to think we have any unless we are shot or INVOLVED in a CITY ACCIDENT!!!

19 comments:

Blue Coyote said...

I remember the MC recently ran a photograph of a boy 6 or 7 years old that accidently set a fire in a house in the Pocono's and killed a man. They published the boy's picture along with his father and police detective at the scene. They published the boy's name as well as the father's name. Sometimes the MC editors are about as smooth as EXLAX.

Blue Coyote said...

The standard in the newspaper industry is -

"IF IT BLEEDS, IT LEADS"

no matter what as long as it sells.

Anonymous said...

The MC owes a lot of people apologies for all the lives they have ruined in pursuit of thieir agenda.

Bill Villa said...

When the homicidal drunk driver who killed my daughter Sheena on her 25th birthday was sentenced to nearly double the usual state prison sentence last February, the Morning Call's blaring front-page headline was: DUI CRASH VICTIM PREGNANT. As contrast, the Express-Times reported on Sheena's previously private pregnancy on line 14 of their coverage. Morning Call managing editor David Erdman refused to meet or speak with me
about the newspaper's choice of headline.

Anonymous said...

Well if she was pregnant, what is the problem? If it was true, there is no problem.....the drunk driver killed TWO people !!!! If she was not pregnant......then sue them.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Mr. Villa's point is that the MC chose to sensationalize what had happened to a private person. These are provat people, not pols, and the paper should be more sensitive when it reports details about them.

Dottie said...

The editor at the MC should have ran MaryEllen's letter. This woman is courageous for telling her story, considering all she has been through. Thanks BernO for posting it here. The public needs to know the truth. I'm sure there are other families who go through this, but are afraid to speak out. And how would the public know about it if the paper does not report on it?

It is disgraceful how the MC always goes for the most sensational headline, trampling on the privacy of the victim and their family. They also allow the disrespectful, hateful comments at their on-line forum. This only makes it harder for grieving families.

Bill Villa said...

"Mr. Villa's point is that the MC chose to sensationalize what had happened to a private person. These are provat people, not pols, and the paper should be more sensitive when it reports details about them."

Thanks Bernie, and to anon 8:55 am's point, yes, Sheena was pregnant, by a couple of days, according to the neuro-trauma intensive care unit doctors. She was likely not yet aware of being pregnant, they said. Also true is that the homicidal drunk driver, according to the arresting officer, tallied the highest combination of pre-crash speed (85+ mph on a 35 mph residential street) and blood alcohol content (.24, three times the legal limit) that this police officer had ever seen in all his years of police work in the City of Allentown. The Morning Call wasn't very interested in these facts even though they were very sensational. Neither was DA Jim Martin's office ...

Anonymous said...

Jim Martin is a disgrace.

Bill Villa said...

"Jim Martin is a disgrace." -Anon, 11:54 am

That he is. And I'm working on it. But in the meantime, pardon my self-absorbed mini-rant of earlier ... and let's stay focused on MaryEllen and the lousiness she is experiencing at the hands of another disgrace, The Morning Call. Not that Jim Martin and The Morning Call aren't related and intertwined. They are. Very much so. But I'm ranting again ...

A.J. Cordi said...

TMC doesn't know what ethics are, nor do I think they even understand the first amendment.

They always report "news" without actually doing any reporting. Remember the cookie thief about a month or so ago?

Olive Hugh said...

Mr. Villa.....although the loss of your daughter is TRAGIC and NO parent would want to have to go through what you went through and continue to go through.....however.....your daughter made a conscious decision to get pregnant while UNmarried, which is against the Catholic faith and choose to get in the car with a drunk driver which is foolish.

For you to blame others like The Morning Call and DA Martin for all of this is unjustified.

To error is human....to blame it on others is more human.

Again, I'm sorry for your loss but some of your anger is misplaced INHO.

Bill Villa said...

"Again, I'm sorry for your loss but some of your anger is misplaced INHO."

Well now I'm angry at you Olive Hugh. Let's picture me graciously suppressing an F-Bomb and agreeing to vehemently disagree with you.

Bernie O'Hare said...

TMC doesn't know what ethics are, nor do I think they even understand the first amendment.

I know a lot of very good and honorable people at that paper. The point I'm trying to make is the paper could probably be a little more sensitive when reporting on the lives (and deaths) of private people.

Anonymous said...

This Carpentewr guy is a disgrace to the paper as well. I am a retired Easton city employee and can tell you that the article on Panto hires in Easton during his first terms was not factual at all. Did he speak to Panto before writing the story or did he just hear him but not listen. One of the best supervisors I worked under was Kevin and Zingales, hell he was a retired police captain who applied for a dispatchers job -- hmm Paul, I gues he wasn't qualified either.

Pamela Varkony said...

Bill,

I, too, am very sorry for your loss. I also understand the pain and the anger.

I lost a beautiful daughter at the age of 20 in a violent auto accident. I will never forget the phone call I got from a Morning Call reporter; I was so numb that we were probably a minute or two into the conversation before I realized that what he was trying to do was get some sort of personal details about her and our family. I remember saying to him, "I'm begging you not to write about this. Please, an obituary only. This was years ago when the there were still many local people at the paper, and no internet.

My request was honored...there was never a news story. I can't imagine how reading about your daughter's private life must have increased your pain.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Pam,

I am very sorry to hear of your loss ... or that suffered by Bill Villa ... or that suffered by Mary Ellen.

Most of the people I know at both papers are very good and very sensitive to how they report about private people.

It sounds like you had a good experience, if such a thing can be said. Bill obviously had a bad experience, and it's obvious that Mary Ellen is still grieving and was treated pretty poorly. First, the paper should have given her more than an hour to notify loved ones. Second, punblishing the precise address was an invitation to burglars. Third, the reporter had a detail wrong. Considering that this is probably the only story ever written about this woman, the reporter should have tried to get the facts right. The archived edition is still wrong.

Bill Villa said...

Pam, thank you very much for your kind words. My heart breaks for you and the loss of your daughter. I'm happy to hear that, in your case, The Morning Call did not add to your pain, because, as you know, it's surrealistically awful enough just coping with the loss and hanging onto reasons to continue living. I can only imagine the mixture of sorrow and needlessly added rage MaryEllen must be feeling at the hands of The Morning Call ... and I hope some of the "good people" Bernie speaks of at the newspaper step forward and demand that The Morning Call makes a sincere and public amends to MaryEllen and her family.

Bill Villa said...

"The MC owes a lot of people apologies for all the lives they have ruined in pursuit of thieir agenda." - anon 12:24 AM

Amen. And while an apology would be nice, I'd settle for ANSWERS to the growing list of troubling, reasonable, and valid QUESTIONS I've been asking The Morning Call for almost 2 years now. They do not like to be questioned, I have found ...