Clippings: Reporting of tragic death scrutinized

It was quite the jolt to those who witnessed it — medical officials and police converging upon Middlebury College campus last Thursday morning, rushing into one of the dorms.
Was someone badly hurt, or worse? Was it perhaps a case of excessive partying coming home to roost for a student? Were there any public safety or health concerns for people inside or outside of the dorm? Was it safe to go inside the dorm?
These were some of the questions that popped into the collective minds of passersby and members of the college community. And the way the media tried to answer those questions came under scrutiny by some area residents.
We in the Independent newsroom got wind of the emergency through our police and fire radio scanner. The machine popped with news of a college student found “not breathing” in a dorm room. This was a dramatic departure from the usual medical alerts we hear emanating from the campus; those calls usually feature a mixture of sports injuries, falls and/or someone with a pre-existing medical condition (such as asthma) needing some basic treatment.
But this was anything but ordinary.
After hearing that scanner report, we contacted Middlebury police to check on the nature of the incident and, most importantly, the status of the student. Chief Tom Hanley dutifully issued a statement including some basic details that would not compromise the investigation. Tragically, the student had died. His name would understandably be withheld until his parents received the absolutely torturous news. But Chief Hanley also passed along information that we thought we should quickly deliver to the community at large: No foul play was suspected in the student’s tragic death and therefore there was no reason for people to stay away from the campus over concerns that a violent offender might be on the loose.
So we quickly posted a story on our website and on our Facebook page conveying what Chief Hanley had relayed to us. We also reached out to Middlebury College to ask for its input, when it was ready to deliver that news to students, staff and faculty.
In the meantime, some folks who saw our story on Facebook expressed their displeasure with what we had written.
Some commenters thought we reported the news too soon, that there should have been a blackout until the deceased’s parents had received the news. Others thought that our reporting of the basic details — absent a name — would strike fear in the heart of anyone with a son or daughter at Middlebury College, wondering if the victim was their child.
Then came the allegation that our eventual release of the young man’s name — once the student’s identity had been confirmed in a campus-wide email as 20-year-old Nathan Alexander — was a calculated effort on our part to “push the story.”
I could immediately see the validity of the commenters’ concerns — except for the one insinuating that we were trying to use a tragedy to generate more clicks for our website.
I guess it comes down to what one thinks would create the most public angst: Having a news embargo until the next of kin is notified, acknowledging that the rumor mill will continue to churn in this “instant information” era where virtually everyone has a smart phone; or publishing some basic details as soon as possible to remove some of the speculation, realizing however that a Middlebury College parent located cross-country might click on the Independent during that time window, see the story, and worry about their student’s safety?
We chose the latter course. That said, we will honor the family’s privacy as local police and the state’s Medical Examiner continue to investigate the sad death.
We in the media enjoy pursuing stories, stimulating debate and showing creativity. But the day I throw a grieving family under the bus to generate a few extra clicks for a newspaper website is the day I hand in my membership card as a journalist and human being.
“I know you will join with me in extending our deepest sympathies to Nathan’s family and friends,” Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz said in his email to the Middlebury College community following the tragedy.
“At a difficult time such as this, I encourage everyone on campus to look out for one another.”
We couldn’t have said it any better.

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