Criminals are human beings too.
But when a newspaper covers crime, journalists have to walk a fine line between demonizing and glorifying the perpetrator.
Jay Shenk of Maumee thinks The Blade recently crossed that line twice. “Why does The Blade seem to portray alleged perpetrators of crimes as victims?” he asked.
Mr. Shenk was offended by two recent stories, that of the fatal shooting of robbery suspect Lamar Allen on Nov. 21, and the saga of Brian Lipp, who was killed by police in September after a series of robberies and carjackings that left one person dead, two police officers seriously injured, and many other people shaken.
I read these stories carefully, and asked Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor, to read them as well. To my mild surprise, we were both in agreement. We saw nothing wrong with the story about the carryout shooting.
But we both think The Blade’s front-page story about Brian Lipp strayed over the line. My guess is that anyone who knew any of the victims would have been deeply offended.
Brian Lipp was a 48-year-old drug user who stole cash from his friend, stole drugs from a Walgreens pharmacy, and led authorities on a two-county chase for hours. By driving the wrong way on I-75, he contributed to a crash that left an innocent driver named Larry Collins dead and two officers with painful injuries that included broken bones.
Eventually, police shot him dead as he appeared to be lighting a crack cocaine pipe.
“There was nothing glorious, or noble, or redeeming about Brian Lipp and the decisions he made the day he caused so much pain,” Mr. Murray said. Yet the beginning of the story was written as if he was some sort of counter-culture hero. The first sentence compared him to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the robber-heroes of the famous movie of that name.
Except that was fiction, and this was real life. The headline continues the theme: “Friend says fugitive went out as he wanted,” and the story also quoted a friend as saying Lipp “liked the limelight.” That might be nice if this were a movie. But the late Mr. Collins didn’t get to “go out” as he wanted and didn’t deserve to die.
“I wish we hadn’t written the story the way we did,” Mr. Murray added. Most of the rest of the story, was in fact, fairly straightforward. But what people are most likely to remember is that somebody who died a creep was being compared to a couple movie heroes.
Mr. Shenk suspected the newspaper of ulterior motives. “Could it be The Blade may have an agenda like: “The hell with law-abiding citizens; our social agenda is to those who ‘go wrong’ and we can “fix” them if only we care enough?”
Your ombudsman doesn’t believe anybody has such an agenda, certainly not The Blade. However, headline writers and reporters and editors do have an agenda of putting the best-written story together possible, with a good beginning that will entice people to read it.
Unfortunately, this time their effort to do so crossed over into bad taste.
I did not, however, find that to be the case in the Nov. 21 story, which described how Lamar Allen was shot and killed by a convenience store clerk after he allegedly tried to rob the place. Nobody else was injured, and the story quoted his sister as saying that he “was gone but not forgotten,” and that he loved football. I saw nothing wrong with that.
And while we shouldn’t glorify those who behave badly, we also need to remember that our legal system is based on the fundamental principle that anyone is innocent until proven guilty.
A polite elderly lady called to complain about community theater coverage. “I just wonder why The Blade doesn’t cover the plays the Village Players puts on. I’ve been told they kind of look down on them. Is that true?” She added that the troupe, which has been around since the 1950s, does an excellent job and, more to the point, her granddaughter was in the current cast.
Rod Lockwood, Blade features editor, was puzzled by her question since there is frequently coverage of the Village Players in the Peach Weekender. He thought perhaps my caller may have been unaware of that supplement. Alas, when I called her back, she had given me a nonworking phone number.
Hopefully she is reading this.
This column was originally published in The Toledo Blade on Dec. 4, 2011.