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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/25/09

Reporting the News Well and, Well, Not so Well

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Message Patrick Mattimore

By now you've likely read about the tragedy in which three families and the pilot of a plane were killed in a Montana crash this week. The San Francisco Chronicle posted this information on its website on Monday evening about the event:

"Five members of a St. Helena family headed for a ritzy ski vacation were among the 14 people who died when the private plane in which they were flying crashed in a Butte, Mont., cemetery about half a mile short of an airport runway.

The Jacobsons were one of three families on the plane bound for Bozeman, Mont., and the nearby Yellowstone Club, a resort for the very rich that boasts of its trademarked "-Private Powder' and the chance to slalom with famed ski film producer Warren Miller."

The information about the five members of the family heading for the "ritzy"- resort was the Chronicle's lead paragraph and the news about the Yellowstone Club affording an opportunity for the very rich to ski was the third paragraph in the story.

Other than provide readers a dose of schadenfreude, why exactly is any of the information about the ritzy resort prominently featured in the story? It's unnecessary and tasteless.   

Some people may conclude that the description of the family's destination is a way for the writer to provide context for readers. But the intent of providing readers with context for news is to provide meaning and perspective- so that the public can make informed judgments. All that the innuendo about the victims' wealth accomplishes is to provide people fodder to blame the victims. Responses on the Chronicle's website indicate that is precisely what many people did. (Full disclosure: I posted a comment on the website critical of the Chronicle story using the pseudonym, psychout).

By way of contrast, the Los Angeles Times reported the same story in much greater depth and with greater sensitivity in its Tuesday edition. Here is that newspaper's lead paragraph:

"The plane that suddenly nose-dived into a cemetery in Montana this weekend killed three young California families bound for a ski vacation, including two sisters, their husbands and their five children."

The Times mentions the families' destination only in passing and with little fanfare in the sixth paragraph of its story:

"The women were daughters of Irving M. "Bud" Feldkamp III, a prominent Redlands dentist who is president of the leasing company that owned the plane. Feldkamp had traveled ahead to Montana to meet family members for the vacation at the exclusive Yellowstone Club resort near Bozeman."

The majority of the Times news story consists of interviews with friends and neighbors of some of the victims. Also, the Times is much more circumspect about jumping to the damning conclusion that the Chronicle prominently features, suggesting that the plane had too many passengers.

Both the L.A. Times and the S.F. Chronicle had an interest in publishing this story which involved victims in their readership areas. The difference: The Times handled the story respectfully and thoroughly, while the Chronicle chose the low road.



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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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