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See above the Daily News' print story. (Credit: NYDaily News)

Did the New York Daily News invade a family’s privacy for its May 13 report on a tragic New Zealand car accident involving U.S. students who were studying abroad?

The May 12 car accident left three U.S. students dead and another five injured.  The students were among 26 other Boston University students traveling in minivans when their vehicle drifted to the side of the road and then flipped when the driver tried to correct course, according to The New Zealand Herald.

Just hours after the accident, reporters working on stories for the next day’s edition were outside one of the victims’ families’ homes.   In the May 13 New York Daily News story, Anatoly Lekhno, the father of Daniela Lekhno, who died in the crash, is described in the report as, “struggling to speak after opening the door of the family’s … home.”

“’We don’t want to comment,’ he said, his eyes rimmed red,” read the report, co-written by Ali Donahoe, Rich Schapiro and Jennifer H. Cunningham.  The report also mentions that his wife, Susanna Lekhno, “rushed inside the house without saying a word about the tragedy.” (See here the print version of the story.)

Is this permissible, even necessary, reporting since it’s news? Or is it intrusive and unwarranted, especially since the family members are not public figures?

We asked the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, “a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism… dedicated to informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy,” about this type of reporting.

“In general, I think the policy of knocking on the door or calling up survivors of a tragedy, can be intrusive,” Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, told iMediaEthics by phone. “At the same time, I’ve had victims’ survivors tell me that a reporter who came at the right time and asked the right questions was welcome.”

While the accident may be news, the question is what are the right ways to incorporate the perspectives of victim’s families?

“It is not a black and white issue, at all,” Shapiro said. “But I think, in general, the spectacle of reporters clustering outside of a grieving family’s home in hopes of an image or quote risks being exploitive.”

Rich Schapiro, one of the New York Daily News reporters for the story in question, told iMediaEthics that he doesn’t see a comparison with a knock on a door and being intrusive.

“Anytime [the New York Daily News] report[s] on a death, we give family members the opportunity to speak about their loved one,” Schapiro wrote by e-mail. “ Sure, sometimes people say they don’t want to comment. In my experience, grieving loved ones often do decide to speak about their relative as a way to honor him/her.”

Another reason to speak to victims, Schapiro said, is to gain crucial insight into the incident at hand. Perhaps the official version of the event has a missing element, to which only someone close to the victim can attest.

The standard position regarding media ethics on such cases is that reporters have an obligation to try to minimize harm of victims of tragedy and other vulnerable people, according to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

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“The Society of Professional Journalists code warns reporters to use their freedom to report … with compassion and responsibility, especially in such moments,” Stephen J. Ward, Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told iMediaEthics by email. “What should not be the prime motivating factor in such circumstances is the old idea of getting the story at any cost.”

How can reporters still get what they need while alleviating intrusion?

It is often the case that a family will appoint a proper liaison to make comments for them, in which media can share, DART’s Shapiro said. This way the crowd outside may be less intense, and less crowded, in their efforts to confront families. But this method can still pose problems.

Is it less intrusive to have a dozen people waiting outside to answer one question? Or have a dozen people calling a home separately for one question?

“Or should anyone bother them at all? I don’t know,” DART’s Shapiro said. “Actually, by respecting a family’s privacy you might end up with a better area of trust, and therefore, a better story down the road. So there is a craft to this gesture of respect.”

It’s journalists’ responsibility to those who are victims of traumatic events to tell their stories in ways that don’t inflict emotional damage on them while still informing the public about what has happened, Shapiro said.

Besides the Daily News, two other New York area media reports  — from the Asbury Park Press and the New York Post — suggest reporters may have also been outside the Lekno house along with the Daily News. The New York Post’s story reported for example:

“‘But since nothing can bring her back, no words can . . .’ the shattered father, 50, continued before breaking down outside the family’s home in Manalapan, NJ.”

We emailed the Asbury Park Press’ Alex Biese, the author of the APP report in question, at the instruction of the newspaper’s local editor Sally Pakutka for confirmation and comment, but received no response to our three e-mail attempts. We also e-mailed our questions to the New York Post’s Josh Saul, co-author of the Post article, at his request after reaching him by phone, but have received no response.  iMediaEthics will update with any response.

We have also reached out to the NYPD asking if it dispatched any squad cars to the family’s house at the family’s request and will update with any response.

 

UPDATE: 6/10/2012 11:41 AM EST: Made small edits.

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