I got a note this weekend from Adam Silverman, a former editor at the Burlington (Vermont) Free-Press and one of the “pros” in the Media Writing book. Silverman, who now serves as the public information officer for the Vermont State Police, pointed me to a local paper’s coverage of a domestic violence incident that turned deadly:
I think you’d be interested in this from a journalism perspective — maybe something for a class or blog (a case study in what NOT to do).
The first story reads like a standard crime piece, outlining the death of two people, the identities of the dead and the police officers’ takes on what happened and what will happen next. As a professor and former crime journalist, a few things make me cringe (passive voice first person with the “Asked if…” thing; the repetition of certain phrases to the point of distraction; a couple giant run-on sentences etc.) but it was a functional piece.
Silverman’s concern, however, came in the follow-up story, which began like this:
BARRE — Counselors were on “standby” at Spaulding High School and the state Department of Public Safety was in mourning a day after a popular lacrosse coach allegedly shot and killed his estranged girlfriend at her Barre apartment and then turned the gun on himself.
As a matter of disclosure, Silverman works for the same organization that employed Courtney Gaboriault, the “estranged girlfriend” mentioned in the lead of that story.
“This was a tragedy that hit close to home in the Department of Public Safety. Courtney was a colleague and friend to many,” he wrote in an email. “The dismissive nature of the TA’s story angered and upset many people within the DPS family, including our commissioner and the head of the Vermont State Police. We could not let this go without calling out the TA publicly.”
Even with that level of attachment, he does a good job of logically unpacking a lot of his concerns with the whole story, which you can find on this Twitter thread. Here are my issues with the piece that in some cases mirror and other cases diverge from Silverman’s take:
- The word “allegedly” always gives me hives, but here it’s doubly dumb. The police say in the third paragraph that this is a no-doubt-about-it murder suicide, so using “allegedly” to cast a doubt makes it seem like we’re going to end up in an episode of CSI, where the truth is hidden somewhere.
- The references to the two people who died in this incident, Luke LaCroix and Courtney Gaboriault, are markedly different. LaCroix, who police said shot Gaboriault and then himself, is touted as “a popular lacrosse coach” at Spaulding High School, while Gaboriault is referred to as “his estranged girlfriend.” In other words, “Locally liked good guy and this person he used to date involved in murder-suicide.” Ouch.
- As Silverman points out, LaCroix gets several laudatory mentions in the story (“coached boys lacrosse and substitute taught at Spaulding” and “his adoptive father, David, serves on the School Board” and “He was a three-sport standout” and “Well-known and generally well-liked in the greater Barre area…”) before Gaboriault is even named. All we learn about her is that she worked for the DPS for about five years. No idea if she was “well-known or generally liked” in any city or town’s “greater area.”
- This line: “Though LaCroix and Gaboriault were together for several years, friends and family members said she ended their increasingly troubled relationship and he did not take it well.” The use of “increasingly troubled relationship” really doesn’t explain exactly what was going on here or who was the instigator or recipient of the “troubling.” The vague language doesn’t paint a picture here that helps the readers clearly see the situation and kind of glosses over who might have been doing what to whom.
- He did not “take it well?” Eeesh…
- I don’t have the chops to fully unpack this from a feminist perspective, but even I can see that pretty much every mention of Gaboriault has her as some sort of referential object associated with LaCroix. The story calls Gaboriault “his estranged girlfriend” in the lead, “his former girlfriend” a few paragraphs later and near the end of the article it mentions that “LaCroix met Gaboriault” when they attended college. I’m sure I’m missing more of this, but those stuck out to my untrained eye, so that’s not nothing.
- References to the death of LaCroix often come in passive voice or lack acknowledgement of action. The line “LaCroix is now dead and so is his former girlfriend, Courtney Gaboriault” makes it sound like something happened to them as opposed to LaCroix initiating the action that cost both people their lives. The same is true with the press-release quote the author used from the school district: “The district and the school community is deeply saddened by the death of Luke LaCroix,” she said. “We sent his family our heartfelt condolences (and) we will cooperate with the authorities in any way we can assist.”
In an ombudsman piece for the Times Argus, Rob Mitchell took a look at the coverage after multiple readers complained about its tone and approach. If you want to spend a buck for a day pass on the site, you can find the whole thing here. Below are a few excerpts and some thoughts that might be generally helpful:
Mitchell first acknowledges the lack of balance in how LaCroix and Gaboriault were treated in the follow-up story, with many more details and plaudits used in his description. He also explains how reporting works in a solid, albeit a little passive fashion: An event happens, we put something out, the next day happens, we follow it up with whatever we can get as fact emerge etc. In trying to find sources, Mitchell argues, reporter David Delcore was trying to find “warning signs” from people who knew LaCroix, only to find that people just really liked him:
“What Delcore found is that the community around him was having trouble equating the lacrosse coach with the man who committed a heinous act of murder. This is the reasoning behind including so much detail about the murderer. It was not Delcore’s choice to paint a picture of him as a “good guy” – that was the story the community told.”
I refer to this as “He-was-such-a-good-boy” syndrome, a condition that emerges when someone the interview subject knows gets caught up in something horrible, usually something of their own making. I’ve dealt with this on a number of occasions as a reporter, an editor, a media adviser and even as someone watching the news with non-journalists who ask, “What the hell are they talking about?”
I remember the mother of a college football player who took part in a shoot out at the drive-thru window of a Taco Bell screaming at me over the phone for writing this in a way that made her son “look bad.” I also remember having to explain to students that nobody is ever going to look at someone just after they died and say, “Bastard still owed me five bucks…” EVERYONE is a good person or is well liked or was THE LAST person on EARTH who would ever do whatever horrible thing it is they were accused of doing.
Not to parallel these situations, but consider these articles on convicted and executed serial killers Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy:
And more to the point, Bundy’s mother thought he was a wonderful and innocent child all the way until her dying day. Very rarely do you get an honest assessment like this one in the wake of someone’s death.
Mitchell also tries to explain the thinking of the publication in regard to its focus on LaCroix and his “well-known and generally well-liked” status within the community:
There is extensive debate within the journalism community about how to approach this. How much weight do we give to reporting about perpetrators of horrific crimes? What purpose does reporting on the motives, the lives or the personalities of killers serve? In this case, the reporting serves to show that domestic abusers are not alien to our communities – they are among us, often unrecognizable as abusers to people other than their victims or a close circle of friends and families. Part of our role as journalists should be to educate the community on how to identify these signs, and the steps to intervene.
Consider the passive voice: “there is extensive debate…” This phraseology exemplifies the art of the dodge. The same can be said of the use of the rhetorical questions that follow, giving the reader a sense that there is so much confusion and discussion that any answer will likely be wrong. In addition, the line about how “the reporting serves to show that domestic abusers are not alien to our communities” makes it sound like the article really dug in on this whole line of thought.
Pardon me, but that’s crap on both accounts.
First, there isn’t “extensive debate” out there on how to cover these things. The debate on how to cover domestic violence ended somewhere around the time that airlines outlawed smoking on planes. The goal of any first-day crime story is to explain the 5W’s and 1H to the best of the writer’s ability. The goal of a second-day story that becomes focused on domestic violence is to use experts as an overarching network of explanatory elements with friends, families and authorities who are aware of the case providing specific anecdotes that fill in the broad strokes of the theory.
Second, this story does nothing in the way of covering domestic violence as it relates to this situation. The only people mentioning domestic violence are the police who speak of it as an epidemic and whoever decided to list the contact info for the domestic-violence hotline. I’m uncertain as to where the police press release gets the “domestic violence” angle on this relationship, but the release speaks of it as if this were the unfortunate conclusion of a long-term violent relationship. No one else in here mentions anything having to do with this specific relationship fitting the pattern of one steeped in domestic violence. (This is not to say this wasn’t the case or that the shooting itself was not a case of domestic violence, but nowhere in the story does the writer draw a line between the broader issue and this specific relationship.)
The closing of the piece offers an apology and a look forward, with a promise that the paper will strive to do better. I believe Mitchell on this account, given that I doubt he or anyone else at the paper foresaw the backlash on this story. I also believe that this story wasn’t an intentional hatchet job, but rather more of a lazy story, powered by sources who had a stake in protecting the reputation of someone they knew.
The key take aways for you here are simple, if not difficult:
- Seek balance: In cases like these, two people died and two people had families and friends who will miss them and who will deal with heartache and pain. Don’t paint one side well and the other poorly simply because you don’t have as much “good stuff” for Person A as you do for Person B.
- If it’s not ready, hold it: Nobody likes being last on a story, but running a half-baked piece out there to show you got there first won’t do a lot of good. In a case like this, it does a lot of harm. If you don’t have the full piece, wait until you do or until you and your editors are comfortable that you have given everyone a fair chance to present information. Then go for it.
- Consult an expert: Some stories are outside of the traditional understanding of reporters, in that they require nuance or the reporter isn’t an expert on the given topic. Stories involving sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes in this vein often require some clarity from pros. Even if the topic isn’t crime, if you feel you don’t know enough about an area or topic that has sensitive issues or nuance beyond your understanding, contact someone who knows this and let that person guide you or help you help your readers more fully understand.
- Fess up: The best thing about this is that the paper stepped up and spoke back to the readers who spoke out on this topic. Mitchell seemed to do a little too much of the “Don’t hate the player. Hate the game” thing for my taste, giving the writer and editors a pass. However, he did say the paper acknowledged the position of the readers and the paper did apologize while making offers to improve its efforts in the future. That’s something not every paper would do, but it something you should aspire to as writers. When something goes wrong and you had a hand in it, fess up and be forthcoming.