Personal details in fatal-crash story went too far

A number of readers were outraged by a story about the tragic death of Sarah Heator, a Bay Park Community Hospital nurse, whose life ended in the wee hours of the morning the day after Christmas. She died, through no fault of her own, after she was struck by a wrong-way driver on I-475.

Richard Fotoples of Toledo wrote that he thought The Blade “showed disrespectful indifference when they attempted to call the home of the woman’s parents to get a comment from her siblings.”

Nor did he like the fact that the story about her untimely death included the details that “records show” the woman gave birth to a daughter in 2001 and that “her eight year marriage was dissolved in 2004.”

“What could the inclusion of this information possibly contribute to this tragic story? … the fact that she was a mother and divorced had absolutely no bearing on the story and should not have been included.”

Mr. Fotoples was far from alone in feeling that way, and your ombudsman thinks he was right, up to a point.

The paper did overstep the boundaries of good taste here. When it was brought to his attention, Managing Editor Dave Murray agreed.

In fact, he had heard a similar complaint from Greg Wack, an uncle of the woman who had so tragically died. “I responded by apologizing to Mr. Wack and telling him that I agreed that the information about Sarah Heator’s [divorce] should not have been in the story”

He added, “I think too often when we can’t get family members to talk with us, we fall back on public databases and include information about people from those databases. What we need to do is use better judgment … just because there is a lot of public information available about people doesn’t mean that we have to use it.

“We caused unnecessary pain to a family that didn’t need any more pain, and I’m sorry we did that,” Mr. Murray said.

Sometimes, errors in judgment do get made in the news business, perhaps especially on deadline. In this case, it happened on a holiday weekend, when news organizations tend to have smaller staffs on the job.

However, Mr. Murray defended some of what the paper did, saying that “the fact that she was a mother was important to be included in the story, as was where she was employed.”

Your ombudsman agrees with including that information, which is timely and relevant. Nor was it improper to call the family; in many cases, family members appreciate the chance to provide details about the lives of their loved ones. Also, there are likely other Sarah Heators in the world, and the story needed to avoid causing confusion about which it was.

That explanation satisfied Ms. Heator’s uncle, who wrote to the managing editor, “Thank you for your timely and compassionate response and apology. Our family greatly appreciates this as we have all grown up in the Toledo area and have read The Blade since we could read at all.”

Partisan bias in the news columns? Last week, U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Reader Rob Kegerreis thought it was a mistake not to put this story on the front page.

“I figured since you ran front page stories for two days of Arlen Specter switching parties [in April] you would be fair and balanced and run the Parker Griffith story on the front page.” The fact that The Blade put the Griffith story on Page 3 betrayed, Mr. Kegerreis, thought, “a liberal slant.”

Here, your ombudsman thinks the paper made the right call, for reasons that have nothing to do with partisanship. The Specter switch was a big deal because it made it possible for the Democrats to achieve the 60 votes necessary to limit debate and pass the health-care bill.

Plus, Mr. Specter has been a prominent senator for many years, and his switch also was significant for what it said about the declining role of moderates in the GOP. Mr. Griffith, on the other hand, is an obscure congressman whose party switch made no meaningful difference in the balance of power. Republicans are still greatly outnumbered in the House.

The story did merit some attention because Mr. Griffith is a retired physician and opposed President Obama’s health-care plan, though there were indications that he might have calculated that it would be easier to win re-election as a Republican in his very conservative district.

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