Death details upset reader

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By Jack Lessenberry
The Toledo Blade

Reader Judy Justus of Perrysburg was indignant.

“Doesn’t The Blade have anyone who reads the entire issue before it is printed?” she asked me.

What upset her was this: A few weeks ago, there was a prominent article about a new support group that is trying to help grieving families who have lost someone dear to them.

One of the families featured included three young children who were struggling to cope with their father’s recent death. The article was tasteful, well-written, and sensitively done.

But on that same day, elsewhere in the paper, there was something that made her cringe. The Blade regards itself as this community’s newspaper of record. It prints marriages and divorces; deaths and the causes of death, in what is called “Today’s Log.”

Coincidentally, on the same day the story appeared, the newspaper included those children’s father’s cause of death in tiny type on that page: Auto-erotic asphyxia. The man had, in other words, accidentally suffocated himself while masturbating.

“EEK!! Such insensitivity on the part of the paper,” Ms. Justus fumed. “Hopefully the children won’t ever know that,” she said.

What does your ombudsman think?

Well, it was certainly an unfortunate coincidence. The fact is, however, that while the various sections of the newspaper are each read closely by one or more editors, it isn’t realistic to expect someone to “eyeball” everything. Nor can anyone check to see if names in one section pop up in other parts of the newspaper.

Beyond that, however, it simply isn’t this or any newspaper’s job to suppress facts or pretty up reality. It would be unethical if The Blade started suppressing some causes of death and not others.

Most newspapers do have taste. The Blade doesn’t print or post gory photographs of airplane crashes or other accident scenes, for instance, though it would be perfectly legal to do so.

My guess is that very few readers who read the feature about grieving families also intently scanned the deaths that day and made the connection. If they did, however, that’s not the paper’s fault.

Eventually, those children almost certainly will know what happened to their father and probably not from one line in the paper.

Fortunately, and ironically, as the article that mentioned them made clear, there are now support groups to help them cope.

Some readers are still very unhappy over the newspaper’s policy of requiring anyone who wants to post comments to stories online to do so through Facebook. One of the biggest reasons for doing so, Executive Editor Kurt Franck said, was that Facebook requires users to register with a real name.

Readers Doug Spade and Mike Clement were among half a dozen who wrote to me to object, arguing that there are “some very good reasons” to support the use of anonymous postings.

They argue that (gutless) politicians might find it easier to issue a strongly worded statement “without worrying about possible repercussions” and that anonymous comments can “spur debate without having to worry that the comments will be viewed through the prism” of how they feel about particular personalities.

Your ombudsman, however, could not disagree more. Were I running the newspaper, I would never allow any anonymous comments; if someone doesn’t have the guts to stand by his or her words, I don’t think we should put them in print.

On the other hand, on further reflection, I am not completely comfortable with Facebook either. It is possible to use an assumed name on Facebook, and I am not completely comfortable with requiring readers to sign up for a second separate for-profit service.

However, I cannot think of a better alternative.

If another practical way of making sure readers identify themselves exists or is discovered, your ombudsman hopes The Blade will consider it instead of or in addition to Facebook.

Reader Russ Frye of Bowling Green made an excellent suggestion on Jan. 16.

“I have a request. In today‘s Blade, there was an excellent article about the House vote to fund relief for those with losses from the storm Sandy,” he said.

“My request is to include in stories such as this how representatives and senators from the Toledo area voted.”

Your ombudsman thinks that’s a good idea. As Mr. Frye notes, informing readers about the actions of their legislative officials is one of its most important functions. Having enough space in the print edition is always a concern, but in the interest of fairness and openness, I’d like to see a legislative scorecard at the end of any major story about bills passed in Washington, Columbus, and Lansing.

This column was originally published in The Toledo Blade on Feb. 17, 2013.