Covering the unimaginable: Policies help ensure unbiased coverage for newspaper and yearbooks
This article is part of a series from a 1999 edition of Communication: Journalism Education Today. Also in this series:
- Taking a multi-angle approach to involve and influence readers
- Establishing a rapport with law-enforcement agencies facilitates gathering information
- The role of student publications depends on healing process
By Bradley Wilson, CJE
The death of a student, faculty or staff member is tragic. But, if high-school publications across the nation are any indication, not all deaths are treated equally. In one newspaper, a student who had died in a hunting accident was “immortalized” in a double-page spread. No one on the staff knew the student. Apparently, few others did either because the copy was a series of vague testimonials that told the reader little about the victim.
Another school dedicated the yearbook to students who had died during the year by including dominant photos of them on the title page of the yearbook without any explanation.
Other schools choose to say nothing about the deaths. Still others write a factual news story and include some details in the yearbook.
Advisers across the nation agree that how an individual school treats a death depends on the circumstances. Clearly the criteria for news dictates that deaths may be covered differently depending particularly on the timeliness of the coverage and the prominence of the person who has died. Advisers also agree that the best way to prevent emotional entanglements is to write a policy to detail how deaths will be covered in both the yearbook and newspaper.
“Personally, I think ‘In Memoriam’ and a name demeans a life by reducing it to a list. If we’re teaching journalism to both our students and their readers we have to face the challenge and report lives and deaths as we report all else,” Wayne Brasler of University High School (Chicago, Ill.) said.
Such policies help prevent unbalanced, biased coverage.
Judy Knudtsen of Alberta Lee (Minn.) High School said her staffs established a procedure to deal with student deaths after a couple of “problems.”
“If we had a picture of the student,… we printed it in alpha order with the class. (We also had) the counselors contact the parents in what would have been that classmate’s senior yearbook and ask if they would give us the most recent photo – if we didn’t have it .… We printed it slightly larger, not much (maybe 9 x 12 picas instead of 8 x10), put the name and birth and death date only under it, and put a two-point black border around it. Period,” Knudtsen said. “Our rationale – what we do for one we do for all and unless we’re prepared to do a full obit for everyone – student, custodian, faculty, etc. we do it for no one.”
Brasler said their policy is to cover the death as another story deserving of publication. He said that poetry and other “cliché” artwork can do more harm than good.
“We have no written policy, but we cover deaths journalistically – we give the facts emphasizing the contributions a person made, why people will miss him or her and the circumstances of death handled with taste and kindness,” Brasler said. “We would never print poetry about someone who died, or picture birds on the wing silhouetted against a sunset. We feel those kind of clichés can be a real insult tothe value of a life.”
Usually, such policies and precedent come about after years of experience or hearing stories from other schools.
For example, Ellen Kersey, a second-year yearbook adviser at Camarillo (Calif.) High School, said she is learning from the reaction to the death of a student last year.
“We had a student who would have been a junior die early last school year. Unfortunately, the yearbook did nothing,” Kersey said. “Dad kept calling – me, the principal, the superintendent after the book came out. The staff and I decided we would do something this year.”
But that “something” became a dilemma.
“This week I called and asked for a color photo of the young man, who would have been a senior this year, as we’re putting his ‘memorial’ in the color senior section. Lo and behold, I am informed they have paid several hundred dollars to have ‘the page’ done by a graphic artist. And on the page is a poem written by a cousin. My first dilemma is that they have assumed we are doing a ‘page.’ My second dilemma is that there are two errors in the poem. When I pointed that out to the family, the response was ‘But that’s the way our cousin wrote it, and we don’t want to make changes’ and ‘it would cost us a couple of hundred (dollars) to have it changed.’ Anyway, I now see that if we had had an obit policy, I could have told them ahead of time what we would and would not accept.”
Vicki Reneé of The Colony (Texas) High School revised her 2-year-old policy after three accidental deaths (a drowning, a hit-and-run and a car accident) during her first two years on the job.
“Our obit policy reads: ‘Should a student or teacher die while the yearbook is still in production, a four-block space designed and produced by the yearbook ads manager will be placed in the personal ads section in honor of that person.’ We sold full personal ads pages to students wishing to purchase the space,” Reneé said.
“However, we wrote the policy to cover students who did not have friends with enough money to purchase a full-page ad. Last year, with a suicide (and two more this year) my principal requested that the policy be revised so the yearbook staff was in complete control of the information so as not to ‘celebrate’ this type of death. This policy will be revised again this year as we will give ‘space as available’ to students who have died.”
A policy, however, may not avoid all interest from administrators and community residents as Edie Leo of Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore. discovered.
“Our policy has been ‘when students or staff members die during the course of the school year, their names will be placed … in the closing section of the yearbook.’ (Our principal) wants us to give one-page memorials (free of charge) to anyone who dies,” Leo said.
“His interest was triggered because we have sold commercial ad pages to interested students who wanted to immortalize the memory of their friends. In the past, these students have applied for funds to pay for such ‘ads’ and have then submitted photos and text to the staff. It has kept us out of the legal tangle of who you do what for…murder, suicide, drive by, multiple deaths, as well as accidental or illness.
“This was a decision of the staff, but now they are being told to decide where they will have this coverage and who will do it and what will go on these pages.”