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Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

When TBT Crosses the Line, What's a Times Media Critic To Do?

Tbtlogo The first thing I want my readers to know, is that I didn't have anything to do with the TBT headline in print editions today on the John Winter story: He Died of Shame.

The impact of TBT's in-your-face headlines sometimes brings friction. Some reporters have worked hard to develop reputations for fairness on their beats, only to see a saucy headline slapped on the version of their story published in TBT, damaging that reputation in an instant.Tbtshamecover_small

My name is apparently included in TBT's story today on WFLA meteorologist John Winter's suicide because they used material from a story I wrote nearly two months ago. Ironically,the point of that story was that suicide is rarely the result of a single event, particularly when the person has been struggling with depression the way Winter was.

What upset me most about today's headline was its adoption of a misconception that suicide prevention activists have been fighting for years: that a single incident can "cause" suicide. It's like believing a shocking surprise can cause a heart attack -- it happens sometimes, but more often the culprit is a longstanding problem festering over a long period.

Given that the online edition bears a different headline as I write this, I wonder if somebody else in Timesland isn't similarly disappointed.

Winter150x190 When Winter killed himself, I heard from suicide prevention activists from all over the country, begging us to be sensitive about how these things happen. I spent time on the phone with Winter's family, and even though they declined to talk to me, I promised to handle my reporting as respectfully as possible and was proud of the story which resulted.

Now I'm fielding a call from the general manager at WFTS-Ch. 28, where Winter's father works, who says they are desperately trying to grab all copies of the newspaper from the building before Jack shows up for work and sees them. I know we do lots of stories that others might not want their loved ones to see, but in this case, the headline didn't have to be as blunt or as misguided.

I'm also NOT distancing myself from our reporting on the details just before Winter's death, especially police reports detailing his admission he'd had an affair.  There were too many rumors flying about to avoid telling the community what the police revealed in public documents about his suicide. I'm still wondering why journalists at WFLA-Ch. 8 didn't seem to reference this material at all during their broadcasts last night.

But such reporting  also needs to be handled with some sensitivity and context.

All I can do now is use this space, which I control more than any other area of Timesland, to express my own objections to this awful cover and disassociate myself from it much as I can.

Wonder how long it's going to take me to live this one down?

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:39pm]

    

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