Kevin MacMillan: Telling stories of death hardest part of our job
Ryan Summerlin April 16, 2014
Last week was a tough one for us in the Sierra Sun and Bonanza newsrooms.
Every Monday, we run an internal report that shows statistics of page views, unique visits and story reads for every article we publish at www.tahoedailytribune.com.
Last Monday, we learned our most popular story from the week previous surrounded the federal lawsuit that was settled regarding the South Lake Tahoe fireworks shows.
This Monday, however, displayed a much different and unfortunate tale.
The news story, “Truckee High baseball coach. 46, dies over weekend,” was firmly at the top of the list, garnering more than 10,000 reads over the course of seven days last week. Our “Top 3” rounded out as follows:
• “Truckee woman killed had headphones on, couldn’t see train coming” (more than 6,000 reads)
• “Man, 67, dies in skiing accident Sunday at Tahoe resort” (nearly 3,500 reads)
Simply put, the stories we told of death last week were our most popular in terms of online reach.
There’s a common industry adage that, “if it bleeds, it leads,” a clever way of saying that if it’s a story about an accident or mayhem or death, newspapers “lead” with it on websites or print editions to better grab readers’ attention.
We don’t do it to sensationalize things, as some may presume — rather, we do it because studies have shown the American people like to read about crime and tragedy. And during our modern era of digital journalism and social media, those studies have been proven with digital trends and statistics like the ones I reference above.
But that doesn’t make it any easier when we take on the task of telling these stories, and I’ll be the first to tell you each of those three headlines took quite the emotional toll on us.
In the case of Marc L. Coleman’s skiing death at Northstar on April 6, it’s the type of news we hate to report. However, any time someone dies in our region from injuries caused by an adventure sports accident, we feel it’s newsworthy because it lets people know of the dangers associated with such activity.
In the case of Janaki Rose Hayes’s April 9 death on the train tracks, one of the elements I considered when writing the story was an opportunity to remind people about safety measures we can take when put in a similar situation. As tragic as this incident was, by reporting it in on Page One, it’s our hope future tragedies can be prevented.
Still, writing about the death of someone is hard. On Friday, Daniel J. Mancuso, publisher of the Illinois Valley News in Cave Junction, Ore., where Ms. Rose is from, reached out to me, requesting I allow him to run our story because, “Janaki was a friend, and (he) really (didn’t) want to write the story in house.”
Which brings me to our beloved baseball coach Mike Ellis, whose commitment to the community and to helping mold Truckee’s youth on and off the field was told through a series of poignant photos and stories from our sports editor, Sylas Wright.
Simply put, it was our “job” to report his death and tell his life story.
Now, we journalists sometimes tell people, “we’re simply doing our jobs,” often uttered during a particularly heated interview, or during one in which we ask tough questions of CEOs or public officials who’re annoyed at the probing.
In the case of coach Ellis, however — and all the stories of death we tell — sure, we do it because it’s “our job.” But in the end, we do it because, as a community newspaper, we feel it’s the right thing to do, not just the only thing to do.
— Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers; he may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin1MacMillan.
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