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Difficult Duty

Fulfilling roles not always easy during tragedy

November 7, 2013
The Inter-Mountain

Every job can pose challenges - some more trying than others. In recent weeks, professionals in our area have been strained past their maximum reasonable capacity when it comes to handling a string of tragedies that have rocked our community.

There was a logging truck accident in the southern part of Randolph County, in which the driver of the vehicle collided with a scenic passenger train, killing one and injuring more than 20 others. There have been multiple fatal wrecks and other major catastrophes, including the brutal killing of a pedestrian who died after being struck while walking along the Five-lane in Elkins.

Then, the most tragic of all incidents happened most recently. Five members of a family died as a result of injuries suffered in a Central Street house fire in the city. Among the casualties were four children and a 29-year-old father who perished trying to evacuate his family from the burning structure.

To say that our fire, emergency, law enforcement and medical personnel have had their resolve tested is an understatement. These individuals have been on the front lines, offering care and protection in the worst-case scenarios.

No one, even if they may have wanted to, walked away. Everyone knew his or her role and that there was a job that needed to be performed - no matter how difficult the task.

The Inter-Mountain has sung the praises of these heroes. By no means are we saying we are in their esteemed company.

However, we have diligently worked to bring coverage of these stories to concerned readers who always first and foremost ask: How can we help?

It is our job to help answer that question and so many more.

Being there when tragedy strikes never is easy. Yet, it is vitally important that so many facets of the community and its trained professionals come together in response to these situations.

The Inter-Mountain plays a role in that response. Our newsroom often is among the first point of contact for those who hear emergency scanner traffic and seek information. We are tasked with quickly, accurately and, yes, responsibly and compassionately reporting news as it happens. This includes news that sometimes can be horrific and difficult to convey.

Sometimes we are criticized for reporting a story. Then, equally as often, we are criticized for not reporting information fast enough or not printing rumors. But that isn't the mark of a professional news outlet on which readers can depend.

Many times we make judgment calls to wait when releasing names of those who have died as the result of a tragedy when other news sources proceed full-steam-ahead without verification or the worry about family notification or other considerations. We partner with local law enforcement and appropriate officials to walk that fine line between disseminating necessary news to the public and doing so in a way that is both ethical and also fulfills the very minimum of our job responsibilities.

In all these tragedies, we have respected requests by family, emergency personnel and community leaders when bringing readers coverage. We didn't think only about going after some headline. We recognize that the individuals affected by these disasters are our neighbors, our friends, our community.

However, there are times when we are asked to limit news coverage to the point we can no longer fulfill that basic minimum requirement for informing the public in a responsible, respectful and reasonable manner. This happened with regard to the Chamberlain family and covering the aftermath following the fire.

The Inter-Mountain respected every wish by the family and those working with them to not release the names of the victims until their loved ones were ready. We did not take photos of family members either as the children's bodies were being pulled from the burning structure or at any of the vigils or other events that have been held to date.

We did this without being asked. Someone may have posed the request, but it was long after decisions were made with our hearts and with no regard to leading the coverage onslaught in a sensational way.

The paper was a community partner first, donating the obituaries for all those who died as a result of this tragedy. We also worked around the clock to cover the community's fundraising efforts, also donating space in the pages of The Inter-Mountain to promote these important events and items for this weekend's upcoming auction.

Through all that, though, we still have a job to do. In today's edition, we fall short of the minimum reasonable coverage of this ongoing story. The Inter-Mountain was denied access to the public funeral service held Wednesday for the Chamberlain family. Though we promised - as we have refrained from doing all along - to continue to refrain from taking photos of the family, we were not permitted to take any images during the service.

That is why today's coverage reflects other facets of the event. We understand and respect why a family who has been through so much wants and needs to put some distance between itself and the public. There is a private ceremony forthcoming where we are sure that will be the case. Not only is that reasonable, but it also is necessary for the healing process.

We did not expect those same boundaries to be in place for Wednesday's open public service. We just hope all those involved personally with this nightmare understand there is a community who has united and come to their aid. Our coverage efforts only were meant in that regard.

Local residents and those far beyond Elkins' border know of this family's needs to help cover funeral and other expenses because journalists - as difficult and uncomfortable as it has been for all of us - have been doing their necessary job throughout this ordeal.

It would be easy to walk away from these stories, but then no one would know how to help in such tragedies. There would be fewer people to rally behind families such as the Chamberlains and fewer people helping to rebuild our community after catastrophic events strike our very core.

We hope the public - and our more than 20,000 print and online readers - understand why coverage differs today from how we have handled similar stories. It wasn't from lack of trying to be there for the Chamberlains or for those who have walked in spirit with this family throughout this difficult journey.

Yet, sometimes you have to draw the line when it comes to gathering the news. Sometimes, you have to understand it's OK simply to grieve. And that is what so many are doing alongside these family members who have been put through enough.

We hope you respect us in respecting them.

 
 

 

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