Dealing with Bad News

By Beacon Staff

Having grown up in Billings and worked last summer at the Billings Gazette as a reporting intern, it’s with interest and some distress that I’ve read the news coming from the Magic City over the past few weeks. Gazette reporters and the community have endured a crazy streak of awful events, which from the look of the Gazette’s online front page today, seems to be continuing.

When Gazette editor Steve Prosinski summed the stories up in two paragraphs in a recent editorial it was pretty stunning: “In the first week, a 3-year-old boy was killed by an accidental gunshot, apartments on Prickett Lane were destroyed by a fire that killed a young man, a boy drowned at a swim party for the families displaced by the Prickett Lane fire, and a 27-year-old nurse was killed on Grand Avenue on her way to work. A teenager accused of fleeing authorities, running a stop sign and causing the crash has been charged with negligent homicide.

“In the past week, a one-car accident on a residential street injured the driver and killed his passenger, the body of an elderly man was found in an alley, a man died in a freak accident at an industrial work site and a first-grader was killed in a school bus accident. Other fires and horrible, fatal accidents were reported in areas outside of Billings.”

Not surprisingly, the string of tragedies elicited strong emotions from the community and significant interest in the Gazette’s news coverage. In his editorial, Prosinski did a good job of explaining how the paper went about making difficult, and sometimes controversial, editorial decisions. And in his blog, City Lights, long-time Gazette reporter Ed Kemmick told readers how these events affect the newsroom’s staff.

“I know some people think we’re all cynical, jaded disaster freaks, but it never gets easy to cover the deaths of young people or tragedies like house fires and car wrecks,” he wrote. “As I said last week, we all started hoping for a lot less news, at least of the bad news variety.”

As a journalist, it’s often hard to walk the line between trying to stay objective and emotionally uninvolved when reporting and not coming off as callous or insensitive. The Gazette’s efforts to explain its coverage and behind-the-scenes editorial decisions are an important move in communicating with readers, who, I think, can sometimes forget there’s a real person behind a byline.

The public may only see the final product, but difficult coverage decisions – like the ones the Gazette dealt with – aren’t made on a whim, and reporters and photographers assigned to write and photograph such stories grapple personally with these emotionally grueling events. And, it’s equally important, I think, to show readers their feedback is taken seriously and to encourage a dialogue that helps both sides better understand each other.

Here’s hoping things quiet down in Billings soon, and that the bad luck doesn’t move westward across the state.

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