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When tragedy makes the news, tough decisions follow

Posted: Friday, Oct 5th, 2012

Managing Editor Matt Roberts

Working in the news business can be very rewarding. In the many years Iíve been associated with newspapers, Iíve been fortunate to be able to share the stories of many great people who are doing great things ó those who have risen above adversity to accomplish what most of us can only aspire to. Itís an unparalleled joy to be able to help make a positive impact on my community through what we do in print.

Unfortunately, serving as editor of a community newspaper often requires making difficult decisions that are often simply choices between one thing I donít want to do, and another that I canít do because of the commitment I have made to our readers to fairly and accurately report on the events important to them.

The sad case that occurred in the parking lot at the Maverik store on Front Street last Thursday night is an important case in point ó you can find a brief article on page A1 about it ó and the circumstances surrounding it warrant some discussion about our priorities and policies in the reporting we do.

First, and foremost, I would like to join the rest of the Heraldís staff in expressing our deepest sorrow and sympathies to the family of Jeremy Long, who perished as a result of events of that evening. Nothing I write here can alleviate their suffering at this time, but I know our hearts and prayers are with them during this time.

While I didnít know Jeremy personally, I suspect like many other Evanston residents I very easily remember him from the countless visits I made in the past to the Loaf ĎN Jug store, where he was employed. I remember him being friendly to me, and always working very hard ó I donít recall ever seeing him standing around, but I do recall constantly seeing him dashing about inside and outside the store, working very hard and doing a good job.

I can say without a doubt Evanston has lost a valuable resident, and we are all the worse for it.

But let me get back to the matters of policies and priorities.

Our general policy regarding coverage of suicides and attempted suicides mirrors that of all community newspapers of which I am aware: we simply do not cover them. The reasoning behind this is obvious, of course, in that we do not want to encourage others who may be contemplating such a disastrous decision to believe doing so would gain them the attention they often crave, albeit posthumously.

There is one important exception to this rule, however, an exception that applied in this case, as well as one a few weeks ago, when a Utah man hanged himself along Highway 89. If the incident is done publicly, we are obligated to provide information to our readers about it.

Why the exception? Because, by and large, the public will already be aware of the incident, negating the primary reason we donít report on suicides in the first place. Not reporting a serious event affecting the community in this way would be a failure on our part to inform the public, one of our primary duties.

In the case of Jeremy Long, the Evanston Police Department, citing its own policies, declined to provide specific details of the case, which limited our ability to report on it. I understand and appreciate the decision, although I believe the public nature of the incident warranted more access to that information.

Another point: We received some complaints and concerns from residents about why we didnít report on the incident sooner. Let me assure you that we are committed to informing our readers about the events in our community as quickly as we possibly can, but that commitment will always be tempered by our responsibility to disseminate only accurate, balanced information.

Living in the instant-gratification digital age of the 21st century, we have grown accustomed to moment-to-moment updates from a variety of sources. As a journalist, that technological reality has in many ways eroded the quality of information available to the public, and made it even more important for us to take a little extra time, if necessary, to ensure what we are printing is accurate.

And for a final point, I want to emphasize that this story ó of the senseless, tragic loss of a young man ó is likely not over. You have probably heard many of the rumors regarding this case that we have, and if any of them are based in truth, rest assured we will seek to discover that truth and share it with our readers.

That being said, we must separate our emotions from the events about which we report and keep the facts a healthy distance from rumor and innuendo. We will do more harm than good if we donít.

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