Sunday, March 4, 2007

Emotion, cheap shots, storytelling and ethics

A while ago I sent an e-mail linking to this story from the St. Petersburg Times about a teacher who committed suicide in a public place. I asked what you thought of the way the writers presented the story, and particularly the ending.
That started a great discussion about how well-written and well-reported the story was, and about whether the ending was a superb stroke of emotion or a cheap shot that shouldn't have made it in the paper.
Some highlights:
  • There is dogged reporting and solid writing going on here, for sure. I think it's a good stoyr that obviously started as an investigative piece and then became a quicker-turnaround on a suicide. Some of the major ethical dilemmas here were obviously muted by the fact that you can't libel the dead.
    Here's one minor wet-blanket comment on a strong piece: The final sentence works. It's powerful. But it needs attribution, in my mind. Even something like "About six children saw his body hanging, witnesses said." would not have been any less powerful. (Chris Otto)
  • I'm kind of curious about the wife. It said she received the (I'd say distrubing) text message from her husband on Friday, but she didn't report him missing until Sunday. You could almost do a narrative about what she was doing in between the time she received the message and when they found him ...The ending was certainly powerful, but almost Hollywood powerful. Like that is how the movies would portray how a newspaper would do the story... J. Jonah Jameson anyone? (Sue Haller)
  • For me, the ending crossed the line well into opinionated. A way existed to end that story just as powerfully without passing judgment on the guy (I mean, c'mon, clearly the writer is saying he was a bad guy for what he did).
    It might even have worked for me if the second-to-last graf about what he put on his job application was moved up to the section where his wife talked about how he loved his job. That way requires a little more intelligence on the part of your reader, I think, to put those pieces together, but I don't think it would have felt like such a judgment on the guy that way. (Amy Gulli)
  • I'm not a writer -- just a newspaper reader and I'm baffled about this push for tear-jerker type "news" stories in a newspaper.
    Because I knew there was something to look for in the ending, I might not have been paying attention to what I was reading in the early paragraphs but I had to keep backtracking to grasp the issues, e.g., the day the text message was sent, the day the wife reported her husband missing, the cause for an investigation, the result of that investigation, the cause for another investigation.
    In the end, I didn't like the story.
    (Jackie Shrader)
  • Sorry, man. This is the totally wrong take on this type of the story unless its a second-, third-, or later day.
    All the elements fit. But the ending is the lead:
    On his job application, Stephan Brown said that his greatest pleasure in teaching came from knowing he had a positive influence on a child's life.
    Sometime over the weekend, the Seven Springs Middle School science teacher, under investigation for alleged "inappropriate electronic communications" with a student, drove to the Trinity YMCA and hung himself on the ropes course.
    Six children saw his body hanging there Monday.
    Then go into the explanation of the allegations, his wife, the dog etc. Why bury the most gripping part of the story at the very end? That goes against everything I'm hearing about readers' shorter attention spans. (Rick Lee)

Any other thoughts?