(08/23/2002)
The Charleston Gazette

James Haught

Thursday August 22, 2002

WELL, it happened again. Last week, a former state highway commissioner — who went to prison in West Virginia's largest bribery scandal — died at advanced age. In a news report, we mentioned his corruption record.

His family was devastated, horrified, enraged. My phone rang all day with bitter calls accusing us of cruelty. "How could you be so ruthless to his children?" was the general tone. "We never told some of the grandchildren about it. Don't you care about the pain you cause?"

One granddaughter e-mailed me: "You brought up some very hurtful information that would have been better left unsaid.... Your paper owes my family, especially his children, an apology."

I felt sympathy for the anguished relatives. I wished that our news item hadn't appeared, by chance, on the same page as the obituary written by the family.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to tell the callers that a newspaper is in a predicament in such cases. If we mention the conviction, the family is shattered at a time of grief. But if we simply report that the former high state official died, and say nothing about the controversy that engulfed him, we would be printing a misleading account. In effect, we would be falsifying the public record.

In the deepest sense, the Gazette didn't injure the family — the highway commissioner did so when he helped set up sham corporations in other states to receive bribes from contractors in return for state highway purchases. (It was part of the historic scandal under Gov. W.W. Barron. Former Gazette reporter Tom Stafford discovered the out-of-state firms, and the FBI moved in to prosecute.)

In the newsroom, we often sweat over ethics quandaries such as the one posed by this death report. In the end, we usually decide that we have no choice except to tell the truth. If we start concealing certain unpleasant facts, where would it end? How would we draw the line between what we'll print and what we'll hide? Worst of all, the newspaper would be seen as untrustworthy if we concealed facts that are widely known.

A few years ago, we faced the same dilemma about suicides. When we reported that teen-agers or distraught people took their own lives, it upset families already in distress. They often turned vehemently against the paper and canceled subscriptions.

There's really no solution to the suicide issue — but we found one, of sorts. We let families purchase their own obituary notices and write whatever they want. Many of the reports say the deceased "went home to the Lord," not revealing the cause of death.

More broadly, each time we report that a West Virginian is charged with rape, or convicted of murder, or sentenced for embezzlement, or the like, the news hurts the person's family. Relatives may be ashamed to face neighbors. Children may be taunted at school.

We're aware of this hurtful fallout from the news, but we don't know any way to avoid it. We can't stop reporting crimes. The public has too much at stake in the need for a safe and honest community.

There's a lot of ugliness in the world. That's why police and prosecutors and prisons exist. Newspapers must report enforcement actions, because our job is to inform people about matters of urgent public concern.

We regret that it causes grief to some innocent relatives. However, the factual record exists in every community and state — and a factual newspaper must reflect reality.


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