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How graphic is too graphic? (Summer 1997)

by journalism student Mary Ann Humphrey

After TWA's Flight 800 plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean in July of 1996, killing all 230 passengers, Newsweek magazine ran an article titled "Death on Flight 800." Nearby residents who sped to the scene to try to help rescue victims were quoted saying, "There were legs and internal parts floating around. It smelled like rot," and "When we tried to pull a woman’s body out of the water, her head fell off."

A photo accompanying the story, fuzzy and obviously shot from a distance, showed the dangling legs of a body being pulled into a rescue boat. Anguished friends and families of the victims responded angrily to the coverage, sharply criticizing the manner in which the piece was written and the photos used.

Stories about violence need not be sanitized to spare the feelings of victims or families, but considering their perspective improves the quality of a piece. While sensational, shocking or dramatic articles sell papers, victims are often dehumanized in the process, and that ironically has the detrimental effect of altering the story's overall significance. A recent case involving the Lansing State Journal is an example of a story that will probably be remembered mainly for its reporting on the details of the crime, rather than the life of the victim, which appears to have been its intent.

A troubling case

Lansing State Journal reporter Betsy Miner covered the Rose Larner case from the beginning to its recent dramatic end. Eighteen-year-old Larner disappeared in 1993, and the story that eventually surfaced regarding her death was nothing short of ghastly. William "Billy" Brown, a witness to her murder, revealed grisly details of dismemberment and cannibalism which were featured in the story the Journal ran in the fall of 1996. Miner said that she and her editors never hesitated about using the information, but they did discuss where to place it. "If we led with it, it would have been sensationalism," she said.

The paper compensated by placing the most shocking details on the jump page. Miner felt that the decision to use the grisly facts was necessary. "One reason we had to use it is that the question has been for three years, what happened to Rose Larner? We could now tell the story, for better or worse," she said.

Backlash from the community

For worse seemed to be the general response in the community. The public's reaction was vehement, all the more so because the staid Lansing State Journal is not often the purveyor of such tabloid-style news. Miner said the newspaper received many angry calls from people outraged by the piece, and concerned about the pain it would cause the family.

Miner had become close with Rose Markey, Larner's mother, and had her full consent to print the whole story. After the story ran, Markey called Miner to reassure her that it had not caused her grief. "They're saying that you hurt me and it's just not true. I needed to know what happened to my daughter," Markey said.

However, Markey had already learned what happened to her daughter Rose before the story was written. Perhaps her reaction would have been different if she had learned about it for the first time in the paper.

In February 1997, the State Journal ran a feature piece on the life and last days of Rose Larner. The story carried a warning this time, an editor's note saying the story contained "graphic and unsettling passages that some people might not want to read."

It went on to say that the paper, along with the support of Rose Larner's mother, decided the information was necessary for the "complete telling of her daughter's story." Managing Editor Steve Crosby was instrumental in making the decision, Miner says. "We thought we would warn them a day in advance, to keep the kids away, or to not read if they so chose," she added. "We didn't feel we had the right to weed out the details, as disgusting as they were," Miner said.

The Journal received a lot of angry calls anyway. Someone picketed with a sign that read, "Boycott the Journal. My son read the paper and didn't sleep last night."

Although the State Journal, in an unprecedented move, not only noted that the consent of the victim's mother had been secured and carried a warning, readers were still offended.

Recently, the final piece on the sentencing of Larner's murderer indicated that Larner was dismembered and that "cannibalism was practiced." Journalists have a responsibility to report the news accurately, but consideration for the victim's perspective is essential.

Graphic details don't always make a story more compelling - there are times when all the news isn't fit to print.