The ancient book of Exodus (King James translation) contains a warning from a jealous God to visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” if the fathers are hateful to God. But what punishment should the parent receive when the sin is that of the children?
That was the focus of a discussion we had in the newsroom several days ago after the child of a prominent elected official was charged with a felony. Should the child’s well-known parent be identified in our stories?
This is not an infrequent consideration in newsrooms. It is easy to think of the times we have seen or reported on the police chief’s son who steals a car; the mayor’s daughter who is picked up with marijuana in her purse; the coach’s son who is charged with rape; the politician’s daughter caught driving drunk. You can probably think of others.
The first time this reporter was confronted with this issue, as far as his fading memory can recall, was decades ago when the son of a prominent attorney in the town where he worked thought it would be great fun if he and his buddies went out to an old cemetery and pushed over tombstones, doing thousands of dollars of damage. Should my story mention that the son of one of the town’s most prominent lawyers had broken the law?
Parents, prominent or not, sometimes have to deal with a child that exercises poor or no judgment and in the process sometimes ask themselves, “How could my kid do this? He’s (or She’s) been raised in a good home. We’re good parents. What got into him (or her)?” The offense usually doesn’t rise to the issue of theft, rape, drugs, and drunken driving. But the concern coupled with embarrassment is there.
Reporters are taught to separate themselves from the moment and make news judgments unaffected by emotion, their own or someone else’s. Or personal friendships. Isn’t parental suffering at the hands of a wayward child enough of a family matter that it is not necessary for a reporter to add to it by indentifying a wrondoer by parental connection? Does common decency play a role in that discussion? It’s bad enough that the kid did something bad; do reporters have any duty to say who the parents are?
The Missourinet generally does not tie the sins of the children to the parents. Generally. In fact there are times when we–and other members of the media–mention that someone who has a name similar to a prominent citizens is not related to that citizen. If the name is similar enough that news consumers could wonder if that is a prominent personage’s relative, we have felt it advisable to answer the question before it is asked. No, it is not the child of the personage. There’s another question we consider, too. You’ll get to that next.
Here are some of the things we ask when the child of a leading citizen gets into trouble:
Did the leading citizen have anything to do with the incident?
Would we mention the name of the parent(s) if this incident was caused by the child of someone who is not in a prominent community position?
What is added to the story by mentioning the name of the parent(s)?
Does the parent deserve to have the iniquity of the children publicly visited upon him or her?
Does a coach whose child strays into illegal territory deserve to have people say, “How can he coach my child when he can’t even raise his own?” Does the mayor deserve townsfolks saying, “She can’t even manage her own family; what makes her think she can run the city?”
Is it fair for a reporter to trigger that kind of gut reaction from the public by identifying a wayward child with the parents’ names?
The answers are hard to apply universally. If we don’t identify children-wrongdoers by their parents, should we identify victims of crime, accident, or serious illness by their prominent parental connections? Do the same questions apply?
The Missourinet is more likely to report that the child of a high state official has been diagnosed with leukemia than we are to report they have tipped over thousands of dollars worth of tombstones. We are more likely to report the child of a leading citizen has been critically hurt or killed in a traffic crash or has become a war casualty.
What’s the difference? Aren’t we being contradictory?
Yes, we are. And we suspect a lot of other newsrooms are the same way.
The difference in approaches, as we see it, is the difference between sympathy and scorn. Those touched by tragedy regardless of their prominence deserve sympathy. Those touched by wrongdoing of a family member usually do not deserve public scorn.
Determining what is “news” has no formula to fall back on. We are human beings reporting on the human condition. We are not Gods, jealous or not. We do not agree within our profession or within our own newsroom what is the proper answer. But more times than you might think, we weigh what we should say and consider who might be affected, and what is the fair thing to do.
All those years ago, I did not use the name of the lawyer whose son tipped over the tombstones. And most recently we did not run a story about a political leader’s son who got himself in enough trouble that he faces prison.
In both instances and in many in the intervening years this conversation has been played time and again in our mind and in our newsrooms. Some might criticize these decisions as censorship. We considered them editorial discretion. The line between the two is thin, easily crossed and easily blurred, and is often in the eyes of the beholder.
And that’s a little look at some of the things that happen before you hear or see a newscast or read a story in a newspaper.