Sound Off: Newspaper appropriately followed five W’s, and H

Since moving to our beloved Rock 10 years ago, I have been intrigued by the number of serious, often weird crimes that are committed on this mostly rural island with fewer than 80,000 usually kind, civil and mellow people. Dare I remind you of the following items that have run in the Whidbey News-Times in recent months?

A sailor from Naval Air Station Whidbey was accused of having sex with a teenage boy in his parents’ RV. A pizza vendor brutally killed his wife and buried her in Freeland so he could have time to spend with his mistress. An elderly woman from Clinton went to California, shot her equally elderly sister and then hanged herself in jail while awaiting trial – all after placing her own obit in the South Whidbey Record. An Oak Harbor man was accused of repeatedly raping his own stepdaughter. After previously being busted for drugs at Walmart, a man took his girlfriend and kicked in the door of a South Whidbey house with terrified occupants inside, trying to avoid arrest by a sheriff’s deputy. An Oak Harbor pastor pled guilty to raping a 15-year-old girl who is a member of his parish.

And, of course, most recently a Freeland man shot his girlfriend in the head while they argued in her car — with their 10-month-old son in the back seat, then killed himself.

Those of us who came here from big cities are used to hearing this kind of disturbing news. You can’t escape it. But here on Whidbey, it seems to be harder to take. Often, it’s because we all know so many of our neighbors and it’s painful to hear that someone we know has become a victim – or a perpetrator.

Why make the victim’s family suffer by publishing this stuff? And why make the rest of us feel sad, uncomfortable, unsafe or worse by sharing the gory details?

The recent horrendous killing of the young woman in a car by her boyfriend while their toddler watched put a spotlight on this fairly widespread community sentiment. And that brings me to my questions, dear Rock dwellers: What don’t you want to know about crime on our island and what do you wish nobody would tell you?

When I studied journalism at the Udub a half century ago, young reporters were drilled to focus on the five W’s and an H: who, what, when, where, why and how. Tell your readers what they need to know. Do it without a lot of flowery adjectives and leave out your own opinions.

I followed that practice in my nearly 20 years at the Los Angeles Times, and I see it followed carefully by my colleagues here at the News-Times and Record. What has overtaken journalism since I studied it in the 1960s can be summed up in just two words: the internet.

While “traditional” journalists usually still follow the old rules, everybody else gets to say, write and post whatever they want on social media — verified or not, without any restriction on “good taste” or “community standards.”

In the case of the murdered young woman, a few people were upset to read the horrible details in this newspaper. One reader worried about the effect it would have on her family and children — legitimate and compassionate concerns. But would there have been any less effect on them if the newspaper simply reported it in one sentence: A woman (unidentified) was murdered this afternoon and her killer (identified by the sheriff) then shot himself.

Would that have been better, since we all know that social media exploded with details — some correct, many not?

There’s a fine line between telling people what they need to know about what’s going on in their community and offering sensational or titillating details just to grab their attention.

I believe the News-Times was correct to publish an accurate story, complete with the five W’s and an H. It gave me the correct, if horrifying, information about what had happened in the place where I live.

I was pleased to see that the mothers of the victim later complimented the reporter on her fair and accurate story.

More than ever in our digital information age, we really need trustworthy information — sometimes even when we’d rather not know it.

Harry Anderson is a columnist and proofreader for Whidbey News Group who worked as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times.

More in Opinion

In Our Opinion: Don’t increase sewage plant costs with a bum deal

The sewage treatment plant in Oak Harbor continues to send money down the drain.

Editorial: Vote as usual; don’t be confused by U.S. Postal Service mailer

Island County ballots will be in the mail Oct. 14.

Editorial: Police body cams aren’t perfect, but are vital technology

A body-worn video camera is not a perfect tool for police officers,… Continue reading

Editorial: Navy’s fight for freedom should include freedom of information

Regardless of how you feel about the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve and… Continue reading

Opinion: Environmental strategy must focus on more than just climate change

By Don C. Brunell Our environmental quality strategy must be encompassing and… Continue reading

Editorial: To address racism, we must acknwledge that it exists

In her letter to the editor, located below on this page, Coupeville… Continue reading

Editorial | Tax credit proposal would aid local journalism

By John Bauer The Herald Bipartisan legislation in the U.S. House would… Continue reading

Editorial | Tax credit proposal would aid local journalism

By John Bauer The Herald Bipartisan legislation in the U.S. House would… Continue reading