When U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns ruled that autopsy reports on the victims of the Jan. 8 shootings could be made available to the public, it created something of a quandary for local media outlets. How much of that information—released on Monday, March 7—should be reported?
KVOA Channel 4 made references to the ruling and dedicated a reporter to the story during its evening newscasts, but provided no specific details about how the victims died.
"We reported what we felt was the newsworthy information from the autopsy reports. To air more, we felt would be sensationalistic," said KVOA Content Management Center director Cathie Batbie-Loucks via e-mail.
The thought process at KGUN Channel 9, which reported on the ruling but didn't release any details from the reports: "There was nothing surprising in the report, and we just decided not to further traumatize the family or the community by going over all the graphic details," said KGUN news director Forrest Carr via e-mail.
KOLD Channel 13's approach was different: It didn't dedicate a reporter to the autopsy-release ruling, but the station did mention the causes of death in one of its newscasts. The station also made the reports available at kold.com, setting up separate links to each report so that members of the public wouldn't stumble across the information unintentionally.
"We only told viewers who was shot and where. That was it," said KOLD news director Michelle Germano. "We did not go into any more detail than that. It was probably not any more than a 30- to 45-second story. (At kold.com), if you clicked on just the autopsy story, you were not going to find out the details of that report."
KOLD's handling of the incident caused a round of spirited yet civil debate on some of the station's social-networking sites, a debate mirrored somewhat during behind-the-scenes meetings among news personnel.
"You have to go with what you think is the best decision. What our task is as journalists (is to) be sensitive to what the victims in this community have been up against (while) knowing we have to give the information to viewers," Germano said. "Can we do that in a manner that isn't intrusive and is easier for everybody? Were there some people who did not want the story aired at all? Yes. Were there some people who wanted more details? Absolutely. But we felt we took the best approach.
"We have some people here who are pretty close to the situation, and we're definitely taking into account their feelings. In a situation like this, if you didn't take into account your newsroom, I don't think I'd be a good manager. I need to hear what my staff is saying. We forget: Those conversations are what fuel us every day. It's nice to understand this is where the line is. ... We're aware of it, and we understand what the ramifications are."