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What We Left Out of Our Report About a Baby Who Died (And Why)

We didn’t put everything we had into a story about an infant who died at a day-care center. We want to tell you what we had and why we kept it to ourselves.

One of the more difficult aspects of a journalist’s life is writing about death. Contrary to the caricatures of reporters and editors chomping cigars and swilling whiskey down chest cavities devoid of hearts, covering tragedy is a difficult task for any person deserving of the privilege of reporting the news.

Recently, our Urbandale Patch .

That’s a story we were obligated to report.

That’s a story we were also obligated to report with particularly keen sensitivity.

And, for that reason, we never shared with readers the recording of the 911 call that was made as a woman struggled to revive the child as she talked on the phone with an emergency dispatcher.

There was a good short-term business consideration that argued in favor of doing so: In short, such tapes tend to bring additional eyes to our sites, and posting the audio of this 911 call surely would have accomplished just that.

And there was this consideration: We have posted 911 emergency calls before.

And then there was this to think about: Who are we to decide to withhold something about the story that we are legally entitled to post -- and that people are legally entitled to hear?

All that said, not to post the tape was a fairly easy call.

The reasons are fairly simple: Iowa’s nine Patches aren’t in the business of getting eyes on our sites through sensationalism; when we have posted 911 calls in the past it was because they added something valuable to the story; and just because we’re legally entitled to do something doesn’t mean we should do it.

In this case, the tape was certainly compelling. The voice of the woman trying to revive the baby is at once filled with heartbreak over the baby’s plight and determination to make things better. The dispatcher is calm throughout.

But Anne Carothers-Kay, who reported the story, was in agreement with her editor, Deb Belt, and me, Iowa’s regional editor, that the tape added nothing useful to the story, and that the only real “value” in posting the recording would be to dangle something sensational to entice more readers to click on the story.

The downsides were just as obvious: The woman on the tape and the baby’s family, we knew, were obviously and understandably devastated by the tragedy, and posting the recording could only add to their misery.

Adding to misery is not why Anne, Deb and I got into journalism, and that’s not why Patch exists. We got into journalism, corny as it sounds, to do good. And Patch exists to inform people, to give neighbors an opportunity to discuss important topics and some that are just fun, and to bring communities together.

It does not exist to sensationalize, to give neighbors a sneaky look inside the broken hearts of other neighbors or to tear people apart.

We realize that, except for this column, you would have likely never known of the decision we made. But since we try to explain our reasoning for some stories that do appear on Patch, it’s worth letting you know that we also make decisions about stories you may never see here.

In the end, we decided, running the “story” of the 911 tape was not worth the harm. Telling you why we made the decision, though, is part of maintaining your trust, part of respecting our communities, and part of our jobs.

Rest assured: We don’t take decisions to post stories lightly, and we certainly don’t take lightly decisions to hold back. When we have news that we think is a positive contribution to our communities -- which sometimes includes negative or simply sad news -- we’ll provide it as our responsibility as journalists.

But when we have something that serves only to further afflict the afflicted, as in this case, we’re going to be guided by our sense of what’s right as people.

Todd Richissin is Patch's regional editor for Iowa.

Theresa Dowd June 05, 2012 at 12:23 PM
I certainly wish more members of the media believed as you do. Congratulations on a good decision.
Dawn Ask Martin June 05, 2012 at 12:54 PM
Which is why you're the first place I turn to for local news.
OS 29 Investigations June 05, 2012 at 01:18 PM
Kudos, Patch !!
West Des Moines business person and parent June 05, 2012 at 02:19 PM
Which is why I'm turning to the Patch more and more these days for my local news... If only wish more journalists gave this thoughtful approach to reporting. Thank you for doing so!
Noëlle June 05, 2012 at 02:27 PM
This is exactly why I look here for my local news first. They have kept that humanity and thoughtfulness about the people and stories they are dealing with. If only every journalist was like this...
Todd Richissin June 05, 2012 at 02:33 PM
Thanks for the support, guys. Anybody disagree with the call. I think there are valid arguments for having posted the tape -- even if I disagree with those arguments.
Trisha Niceswanger June 05, 2012 at 03:07 PM
WOW! That is very impressive to read from a journalist's perspective in explaining WHY you wanted to hold it back. I could totally see why you would want to post it, like you said, to draw more eyes. However, knowing the conscience you and your staff have gives me hope toward other news sources and I hope more can make the right decision like you did.
John Bemming June 05, 2012 at 04:06 PM
I agree with the call. I just hope that this kind of judgement is used on a regular basis.
M-Concepcion Piragine June 05, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Congratulations, and thank you! The former, for the reasoning behind your publishing news, and for always publishing the latest news; the latter, for being serious, good journalists, so much in need at any time in history. Thank you, also, for this column, that gives me a glimpse of what goes on "behind the scene". Nenu Piragine, Iowa City.
Emily C June 05, 2012 at 05:15 PM
Thank you, I really appreciate that you made this decision. Compassionate journalism is a good thing, and I, too, wish we'd see more of it.
cello June 05, 2012 at 05:49 PM
This. This is why I read your site and NOT the Des Moines Register
Todd Richissin June 05, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Thanks, Cello, Emily, John and all. I really wasn't sure what to expect as a result of this post, and I'm gratified by the response.
J Mac June 05, 2012 at 06:18 PM
I'm good with your decision and appreciate the information behind it. I wonder if the Reg shouldn't have done the same thing with the content of the Sebring emails. To know why she resigned abruply is one thing, but to read the emails....well, I don't know if that was necessary.
Diana June 05, 2012 at 08:01 PM
I agree with everyone, thank you for your decision. I also agree with J Mac about the Reg publishing the emails. Yes, she did something wrong but she hurt herself more and think of family.
Susan Shields June 05, 2012 at 09:02 PM
In an age where sensationalizing and preying on fear is the media's norm, I praise most highly your ethics. In me, you have a very loyal fan.
Marie Cunningham June 05, 2012 at 11:00 PM
You all made the right choice. It's a pleasure to be associated with your team. Best, Marie Cunningham Beverly Hills Patch Editor
Tim Hill June 05, 2012 at 11:53 PM
As a fellow journalist, I applaud your decision. It's unfortunate how often others in the media choose to sensationalize tragedies by doing the type of thing you have decided not to. Well done. Tim Hill Morning Producer NY1 News, NYC
Mary McInnis Meyer June 05, 2012 at 11:56 PM
I totally agree with this, as a yogi and a human. The first limb of yoga starts off with this: ahimsa - non-harming. Pretty simple. :) And I certainly agree that publishing first-hand personal communications in their entirety that do not add news value, like in the Sebring reporting by the Des Moines Register, only brings harm.
Pam Robinson June 06, 2012 at 01:16 AM
Good decision, Todd. I've always been appalled by 911 tapes unless they really add information to the reporting of the event. Too often they just add titillation. Just listen to TV reporters when they're encouraging people to listen.
Todd Richissin June 06, 2012 at 01:34 AM
Thanks, John. When we ever go astray -- and we will; we're human -- please call us on it.
Kaitlyn Anness June 06, 2012 at 01:41 AM
From a fellow Patcher in New Jersey, kudos. Often, people don't get to see or truly understand the decisions behind how we cover stories. This is a perfect example of sound decision making during a difficult situation. I was always taught "just because you can, doesn't mean you should."
Susan Moore June 06, 2012 at 02:27 AM
I am very impressed. This is what the news should be about. Thank you for making the hard choices and making them correctly. Congrats on being the most forward thinking news site I have happened upon!
Jen Anesi June 06, 2012 at 02:36 AM
I commend your decision to withhold the tapes. The damage they would have done to a small group of individuals who are already hurting more than most of us could ever imagine is certainly not worth the increased traffic. Absolutely the right decision. Kudos to you and your team. Jen Anesi, Local Editor, Troy (MI) Patch
Jan Benson June 06, 2012 at 03:27 AM
Great decision! Patch just moved to the top of my list and I will be sharing this with everyone I can!
Todd Richissin June 06, 2012 at 04:02 AM
Thanks, Jan! Appreciate the kind words.
Fluffoo June 06, 2012 at 05:37 AM
Thank you for making the right decision. Sorry to say that you will never make it in certain "journalism" fields that wouldn't even blink at even calling it a decision.
Entropos June 06, 2012 at 02:57 PM
That 911 tape would have been all over the local news here in Houston. Local news in Houston is despicable.
Karena Garrity June 06, 2012 at 06:48 PM
Good for you. Setting an example for other media outlets. Hopefully they will follow up on your good decisions.

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