Daily newspaper U-T San Diego defended publishing the identifies of those killed in auto accidents after a reader complained.
The reader said seeing the news and name of his friend in print upset the victim’s family, who hadn’t told the victim’s friends of his death yet, Vore reported.
“A close friend of a young man killed in a recent auto accident wrote to the U-T to say that the publication of the man’s name caused further harm to the family, which was already devastated,” U-T San Diego readers representative Adrian Vore wrote Nov. 25.
After reviewing the reader’s complaint, Vore concluded, “The U-T will continue to publish names of fatal-accident victims to fulfill its journalistic responsibility, but with the care spelled out in ethical principles, such as this from the Society of Professional Journalists: ‘Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.'”
U-T San Diego Started Reader’s Rep This Year
iMediaEthics spoke with Vore this week to learn more about his position. According to Vore, the U-T San Diego used to have a full-time ombudsman but the newspaper had to cut the position due to financial constraints. In the meantime, the newspaper has had different editors handling reader complaints.
In May of this year, Vore, who described himself as a “lifelong news guy,” took on the role of reader’s representative.
Vore told iMediaEthics he’s not a “full-on ombudsman” and as reader’s representative he mostly processes complaints and reader mail. Because he isn’t a full reader’s representative working independently, he also has a role in the editorial part of the paper as a news editor.
As reader’s rep, he became the point person for any complaints or concerns from readers. Then, this summer he decided to begin writing weekly columns about the issues and complaints he handles. His columns are printed online and in print on Sundays.
As a news editor in charge of other reporters, he has had to handle complaints against his own decisions and that of his reporters, he noted. “I’ve taken myself to task, I’ve taken a reporter I run to task,” he said.
“There can be some weirdness because I’m an editor and the people I write about are my colleagues,” he said. But, he currently looks at his weekly columns and the position of readers rep as “a spot where I can explain to readers how things go on at the paper.”
Most of the complaints he receives are basic errors, “more that you got something wrong, a who, what, when, where,” he said by phone. However, he does receive more general ethical questions and complaints. In the next week, he plans to write about a reader who complained about the handling of his letter to the editor, he said.
He emphasized to iMediaEthics multiple times “I want to be fair” in handling complaints and that he is still “feeling [the role] out.”
“There’s a real benefit to this column…openness with the readers, reflection for ourselves and how we do our job,” he commented. “It has even spurred some rough conversations within the newsroom about how we do things.”
The reader who was upset by the auto accident reportage argued that the newspaper “should have asked the family for permission to release the name,” but Vore explained that the accident is news. In addition, the name was released to the newspaper by both the coroner’s office and the California Highway Patrol.
“Reporters assume that if officials have released a name, then the immediate family has been properly notified,” Vore wrote. “The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, for instance, publishes names on its website only after the immediate family has been told in person or by phone.”
Further, if news outlets wait for families to OK the naming of any deceased, it may be problematic. Vore explained that the authorities are given the “responsibility” because families “can be complex and divisive.”
Vore said he hasn’t heard back from the reader who complained with any response to his decision.
iMediaEthics wrote in 2011 when U-T San Diego‘s owner and CEO called for the newspaper to be a “cheerleader” for San Diego.