April 6, 2007

When journalists report on the death of a colleague or a competitor, it’s fair to compare their work with the way they’d handle such a story involving someone with whom they had no such close connection. Do they seem more sensitive to the feelings of family and friends? Are they as aggressive as they would be otherwise? More aggressive? Do they omit elements of the story that they might pursue if it were about a stranger? How do they handle the story of tragedy that touches them personally?

About 14 hours after the apparent suicide of WFLA-TV meteorologist John Winter, I tuned in to the newscast he appeared on for 12 years. It’s one I have watched many mornings since I first moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1995. I also flipped briefly to other local stations and caught a little of their coverage.

What I saw was both solid and sentimental. The entire eight-minute first block of WFLA’s 6 a.m. newscast was devoted to Winter’s life and death. Ironically or maybe appropriately, even “weather on the 8s” was missing. In place of the show’s usual animated open and rousing music appeared a simple fade-up from black to a full-screen still photo of Winter that appeared to be his official station portrait. The anchor voice-over was noticeably more subdued than normal, but the emotional undercurrent was effectively managed — and that characterized the coverage that followed.

I learned that an anonymous call brought police to Winter’s home around 3:30 the previous afternoon; that when they got there, they met a friend of his who had come over because he couldn’t reach Winter by phone; and that when police went inside, they heard a single gunshot. They found him in the garage. He died on the scene.

I saw the usual establishing video of Winter’s house, with police tape and emergency vehicles in the foreground. A tighter shot of his car in the driveway followed. I did not see any neighbors, nor did I hear any sound bites from them recounting what they’d seen and heard or speculating on what might have led Winter to take his own life. Would such sound have been part of the story if it were about a famous person who didn’t work at the station? Should it be part of such stories? Will it in the future when WFLA covers cases that don’t come quite so close to home?

Other elements of this morning’s coverage celebrated Winter’s work, both on the air and in the community, his humor, his friendships, his devotion to his alma mater. Mace Michaels, filling in on weather, put Winter’s Kansas Jayhawks coffee mug on the anchor desk and said it would stay there all morning.

Reporter Jennifer Leigh filled in for regular morning anchor Gayle Guyardo, who took the day off and sent her thanks for the condolences that had already reached her. Anchor Bill Ratliff soldiered through the segment, neither stoic nor cloying in his tone. His most poignant moment, wishing Winter “God speed, my friend,” was unusual but not out of character for Ratliff, who on any given day seems more genuine and unassuming than most anchors ever manage to be.

Later in the morning, some production difficulties crept into a Today show cut-in. Just before 8 a.m., there were some awkward on-air moments — the kind that can result from a director in the control room who is either distracted or unfamiliar with the shift or both. WFLA’s regular morning director, the anchors mentioned earlier, was Winter’s closest colleague and good friend outside the station.

What little I saw of coverage on competing stations was somber and respectful. WFTS, which calls itself ABC Action News, even referred to Winter as a “News Channel 8 meteorologist.” It’s unusual in my experience to hear the competition use another station’s brand language, rather than the more neutral-sounding call letters.

It has been almost six years since WFLA had to report on a comparable tragedy involving a station employee. Danielle Cipriani, a newscast director, was murdered in July 2001. Did that experience affect the way the station handled Winter’s suicide? The station seems to have less turnover than most these days, but both the general manager and news director who were in charge then are gone now. The evening and morning anchor teams are largely unchanged; many reporters, photojournalists and others have been around more than long enough to have experienced Cipriani’s loss personally.

Reporting on the death of someone so close changes the way many journalists go about the story, and about their work for a long time to come — sometimes forever. That does not mean that only those who have suffered firsthand can empathize and incorporate compassion into covering human loss.

Cases like this one raise important questions, including:

  • How close is too close? When should a journalist recuse himself or herself from a story? When should a manager step in and remove someone who isn’t functioning well and can’t or won’t see the need to step back?
  • How much special consideration, if any, is due to those closest to such stories — families and friends of the person lost — compared with the way journalists treat the loved ones of victims who don’t have personal connections to the news organization?
  • What other stories should cases like this prompt news organizations to pursue? Most don’t cover suicide very often or very effectively. That can leave them even more vulnerable when suicide affects the newsroom so directly. How can they educate themselves and their readers, listeners or viewers beyond the public facts of the case and fond tributes to their late colleague?
  • What can other newsrooms, not close to this case, do now to prepare for the day such a story does occur in their own communities, their own buildings, their own families?

Poynter Online offers resources to help journalists do a better job reporting on suicide. Stories like the death of John Winter offer newsroom leaders everywhere an opportunity to think about how they would handle such a challenge. And the fragility of life makes it likely that at some point in every newsperson’s career, these issues will become suddenly, intensely and personally very relevant.

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Scott Libin is news director at WCCO-TV, the CBS-owned-and-operated station in Minneapolis. He joined the station in the fall of 2007 from The Poynter Institute,…
Scott Libin

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