, Gloucester, MA

November 16, 2012

Why Did My Newspaper Do That? Caleigh tragedy raises coverage issues

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Every day, we face decisions regarding news coverage.

That means deciding which stories or photos should be on Page 1, where on Page 1 a story or photo should be presented — and, in some cases, what information should or should not be included in those stories or photo packages.

In weighing the last of those questions, I often harken to that classic scene from the 1992 film “A Few Good Men,” when a slick military lawyer played by Tom Cruise confronts the commander played by Jack Nicholson. Defending two Marines accused in the death of a colleague, Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee tries to show that his clients essentially acted according to the culture conveyed by Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessup.

“I want the truth,” Cruise demands; “You can’t handle the truth,” Nicholson replies.

I know there are stories and photos that readers may not necessarily want to read or see, yet represent important local news. And on that premise, we always present coverage based on the premise that our Gloucester Times readers can indeed handle the truth.

Yet even those standards can sometimes be challenged in covering stories about tragedy — especially a tragedy involving a child and local families. And all of those factors resurfaced this week with the discovery of a badly tattered pair of pink capri pants and the renewed media coverage of the April disappearance of 2 1/2-year-old Caleigh Harrison.

The discovery and the word that police and others recognized the pants were “very, very similar” to those worn by Caleigh on that fateful April day represented the first true sign of evidence since she disappeared. That obviously made it a significant news story, and we posted it on and on the Times Facebook site, while also working on a more thorough story for the next morning’s Gloucester Daily Times. But we also faced an important decision – whether to actually show a police photo of the pants on Facebook, and/or in the paper itself.

We included the photo on all three formats – and our Facebook page, especially, exploded with posters who were horrified that we would subject members of Caleigh’s family and site visitors in general to a photo they viewed as an all-too-visible and graphic reminder of the tragedy.

So, why did your community’s newspaper do that?

First, yes, we certainly considered the sensitivity of the issue and the feelings of the Harrison and Hammond families, and our hearts go out to all of them as they continue to deal with a tragedy that they can never forget. Yet, in my view, presenting a photo of the pants as recovered evidence was indeed an important part of presenting this entire story, on several counts.

For one, as I posted on the Facebook site that night, the photo — provided by Rockport police — was very public, and was the first real evidence that she was likely lost to the sea. But more importantly, the badly shredded condition of the pants gave a very real context as to why, as the first-day story noted, Caleigh’s own mother, who had already viewed the pants, could not confirm “with certainty” that they were Caleigh’s.

We thought that was important to answer readers’ questions as to why that was the case and we considered other alternatives — including that there was a chance, admittedly a slim one, that someone else might have left or lost a similar pair of pants at one of our beaches and recognize them from the photo as well.

Finally, as the evening wore on, we talked over time and again as to whether the photo’s addition to the written words outweighed upsetting many viewers, as it clearly had. And we frankly decided that it was, indeed an important part of this tragic story.

Presenting community news coverage isn’t always pretty, and coverage of tragic stories such as this can be as gut-wrenching for us as it is for readers. But we also felt that this photo enabled viewers to see as well as read about the evidence that police and the families were confronting. And we felt that, yes, our readers could and should handle the truth.

As always, let me know what you think.

Questions? Comments? Is there a topic or issue you’d like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Editor Ray Lamont at 978-283-7000, x3438, or at