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Clark Walworth

I told you a few weeks ago that the Star-Tribune generally avoids photos of dead bodies. Except for rare circumstances, we don't put death on your breakfast table.

But what about the consequences of death? What about photos that demonstrate the anguish of grief?

A handful of readers complained last week about a front-page photo showing the parents of Sarah Tolin, the young Wyoming athlete who died in Oklahoma. In the photo, Don and Vickie Tolin walk away from their daughter's funeral. Don Tolin's arm is around his wife's shoulders; her face is buried in a handkerchief.

The photo was powerfully moving. Too moving for the man who sent me this e-mail:

"Was it really necessary to publish this photo? I feel the story could have run without the picture. Don't you feel this is disrespectful?"

An anonymous phone message was more strongly worded:

"Why is it your paper feels the need to intrude on people in their time of grief and plaster their picture on the front of your paper? … How tactless, how rude, and how terrible."

These criticisms are easy to understand. We're all familiar with "paparazzi" photographers who stalk celebrities and intrude on private moments.

But that's not how this newspaper does business.

Before we covered the Tolin funeral, reporter Tom Morton called the Tolin family for permission to attend - and photograph - the event. A family representative said yes.

At the funeral, photographer Sarah Beth Barnett followed the Tolins out of the church and captured a poignant moment. Later, Don Tolin would send her this e-mail:

"Sarah - Thanks for taking what we all considered a tasteful and appropriate picture in today's newspaper … Could we get a copy of that picture?"

That message was gratifying. It affirmed our belief that dealing respectfully with the people we cover is a crucial element of good journalism.

When I discussed the issue with Barnett, she said she can't imagine photographing a funeral where she isn't welcome.

"I just think part of covering a funeral is respecting not only the deceased, but also the family of the deceased," Barnett said.

Could extreme circumstances compel us to cover a funeral without the family's blessing? I guess it's remotely possible, but I can't imagine what circumstances would justify it.

Some readers may wonder why we cover funerals at all - even with permission. In my view, Sarah Tolin's accomplishments and high profile in Wyoming made her death newsworthy. All of Wyoming shared in her family's grief, and news coverage of the funeral let readers share in the tribute.

We at the Star-Tribune extend our condolences to the Tolin family, along with our thanks for allowing us to participate.

Do you have a question or a comment for Editor Clark Walworth? Send e-mail to clark.walworth@casperstartribune.net, or call (307) 266-0545.

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