Report the news, and then provide second-day stories

The Inlander/December 2008

Suicides. Strikes. Traffic fatalities. Each provides sensitive circumstances, and each presents challenges for coverage, especially in community newspapers.

These are the type of stories that must be reported if newspapers are to be the pre-eminent source of what’s going on in their communities and remain relevant to readers. These circumstances also offer a lesson in the value of follow-up stories.

The savvy public relations folks are adept at pitching second-day stories to the media. For example, a press conference announces a new business assistance program; the second-day story can provide practical examples of how these programs have worked elsewhere and improved a company’s bottom line.

Follow-up stories are routine in many newsrooms, especially when it comes to reporting on government meetings. A city council raises sewer and water rates; what’s the impact on homeowners and businesses? A school district raises activity fees; will this preclude some students from participating? A county board imposes new feedlot regulations; are their repercussions for the local economy?

The value of second-day stories might be greatest when pursuing sensitive stories, and indeed underscores the need for covering sensitive stories in the first place.

Suicides provide an excellent example. Even among newspapers that do not routinely report suicides, they are almost unanimous that suicides warrant coverage if they involve a public official or occur in a public setting.

Pause for a moment, however, and think about youth suicides. Many newspapers might feel compelled to report these deaths if they involve students who are visible in sports, academics or community endeavors. But the victims can just as easily be rank-and-file students. And it’s become commonplace in many communities to send a response team into the schools to help classmates cope with their grief. As a result, the suicide becomes a topic at dinner tables throughout the community. Yet, far too many newspapers ignore the story altogether.

Newspapers should report the cause of death – it squelches rumors – and they should examine the second-day stories. The logistics of the formal response team is a story in itself. Other angles can be pursued, too. What are the causes of suicide? What are the warning signs of depression and suicide? What are the myths of suicide? Are local agencies, support groups and hot lines available to people contemplating suicide? What are the trends in suicide rates in the community compared with the state and nation?

Newspapers often are charged with sensationalizing sensitive events. These stories are news, of course, but they must be covered in a careful and responsible manner. The criticism can be minimized if newspapers examine second-day with stories that are informative and educational.

Second-day stories can provide a springboard for broader coverage such as an editorial campaign. Take a fatality at an intersection that has been the scene of many serious accidents.

Reporters, with relative ease, can check with law enforcement and produce a story and accompanying map identifying the sites of fatal and serious-injury accidents during a period of time. In the same story, identify the intersections that lack adequate traffic control. This public safety story is a great service to motorists and pedestrians alike, and it can provide an editorial “call to action.”

Sensitive stories indeed warrant attention; they are part of the everyday news in all of our communities. But reporting the actual incident is only the first step. Second-day stories provide solid and substantive content for your newspaper. More important, they provide a real value and service for your readers.