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Why should we bring up someone's past?

January 14, 2002

Why should we bring up someone's past?



By TERRY HEADLEE


Last Wednesday we reported the death of longtime salvage yard owner Elwood Grimm.

The story ran on A3 in The Morning Herald and on the front page of The Daily Mail. It was a mostly positive story about the colorful, well-known businessman who had many friends, acquaintances, and family members in the area.

The story noted Mr. Grimm's contribution to the community, his various businesses and his love for his family and grandchildren. The last two paragraphs, which recounted his past brushes with the law and government officials, hit a nerve with some of our readers.

First of all, I would like to apologize to the Grimm family and also to readers who may have been upset by the story. It was not our intent to show disrespect toward Mr. Grimm and his family.

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Our business requires we cover both sides of any story - fairly and accurately. Readers demand it and should hold us accountable when we don't.

But it was very clear from some of your phone calls that you thought bringing up the past, particularly in a story after one's death, was not appropriate.

One of the reasons we decided to run a story on Mr. Grimm was because he was well-known in the community, in part because of his widely publicized brushes with the law. Even though that information was purposely placed at the end of the story, some readers were not happy.

I spoke to two family members who expressed their disappointment in the story, listened to my explanation, and thanked me for listening to their complaints.

Several other readers, who said they didn't know Grimm personally, were furious over our handling of the story.

"At the time of someone's death you don't need to remind people of things like this," one caller said. "So what if it's true. It was inappropriate and showed no compassion."

Another caller said: "If someone pays their dues to society it should be over and forgotten."

This presents a no-win dilemma for us. If we report unflattering information then some readers will criticize us for being uncaring and inconsiderate.

If we don't run it then other readers will complain that we are using a double standard and are censoring the news. One caller expressed disbelief with that explanation, but I have taken plenty of calls through the years that made it clear people want equal treatment and are quick to point out when we don't practice what we preach.

The question really is: Should we run unflattering news in an obituary story?

I don't think there is a right or wrong answer. You could argue that it depends on who it is and how long ago the incidents occurred. Another may argue that a current or former public official is fair game while a public figure or well-known businessman isn't.

When a former local judge died a story about his death that ran in our paper included his accomplishments on the bench and mentioned he once was charged with a handgun violation. The reaction from readers then was, of course, mixed.

Everyone will have a different opinion about it and rightly so. One thing is for certain: It will always be a tough call that some readers won't like.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131 ext. 7594 or you can e-mail him at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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