Tuesday, Jul 17, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Despite reader requests, Blade can correct, but not change the past

Jack-Lessenberry-28

Jack Lessenberry

The Blade
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I had a heartbreaking meeting last week with a very gallant lady, a longtime reader of The Blade. Her only son was an honor student and an athlete who was looking forward to college.

He had a sunny disposition, and as far as she knew not an enemy in the world. But then came the terrible day last summer when he was found dead in a basement with a noose around his neck.

The Lucas County coroner ruled the death “suicide, deceased hanged himself,” which was what eventually appeared in The Blade under Coroner’s Rulings in the Daily Log.

But his mother, a manufacturing executive, was convinced that he could not have committed suicide — and after considerable detective work, uncovered new evidence.

For years, teenagers nationwide have been risking their lives by playing something called the “choking game.” The online version of Time magazine did a major story on it on March 12, which indicated that “the deaths can often be misclassified as suicides.”

The “game” involves choking yourself, usually with a belt or a rope, until you feel lightheaded and are just about to pass out.

But over the years, hundreds of children haven’t stopped soon enough. The dead boy’s mother found that he had been communicating with a girl in another state who bragged about how long she had been able to last without passing out.

You can guess what happened after that.

Lucas County Coroner James Patrick told me “yes, she did find that on the computer, and we had no problem changing that to undetermined,” instead of suicide.

The family wanted it ruled accidental, but Dr. Patrick, while sympathetic, said there was no definite proof of that either.

The mother then wanted the old ruling removed from the online archives of The Blade. But newspapers can only correct, not change the past. Blade Managing Editor Dave Murray told me that the newspaper will run the new ruling when it is received.

The newspaper may also note in the old record that the ruling was later changed. But nobody can change old printed copies of any newspaper — and to be honest, online newspapers need to reflect what was actually originally published both in electrons and on newsprint. The past is not always pretty, nor even accurate.

However, newspapers are, as the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee said, the “first rough draft of history.” And they have to reflect things as they were thought to be on the day they were published.

But they can and should admit when things change.

•••

Nobody, it seems, is ever completely happy with any newspaper’s editorial page. During President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, I heard almost daily from “conservatives” who were incensed over the newspaper’s general editorial page support for his policies.

Nowadays, I constantly hear from “liberals,” who are upset over the newspaper’s apparent support for President Trump, and the fact that the newspaper seems to run a more conservative mix of opinion columnists.

In both cases, my answer was that those who own any newspaper have an ethically perfect right to take whatever positions they choose or run whatever columns they like on the editorial pages.

But longtime reader Bob Fotoples had a different “beef about The Blade.”

He wrote that while he did not like the recent move that placed Keith Burris in charge of the editorial pages of both The Blade and its sister paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, what really bothers him is that Mr. Burris “still writes a column.”

He argued that because of his “right-wing views and admiration for Mr. Trump, he should not be writing a column any longer simply because his views, in my opinion, are slanted towards the right.”

Well, your ombudsman totally disagrees.

Editorial page editors are paid to have and express opinions: Either their own, or the collective wisdom of the newspaper.

Writing a column is something editorial page editors ethically can, and, I think, should do. It allows the reader to get a sense of their thinking — and may help readers understand where they are coming from, and the prism though which they see the world.

•••

Mary Beth Lutton asked me “I would appreciate it if you could explain why The Blade uses ‘killed’ when addressing dogs that have been euthanized.” She thinks the Daily Log entry that lists “Dogs Killed” should find a “more humane way of saying the same thing.”

But what really bothered her was the March 8 story on Hope, a German shepherd who had been so badly abused she could not, despite the best efforts of those who tried to help her, recover.

“The second paragraph opened with ‘The Toledo Area Humane Society killed Hope on Tuesday,’” she complained. Ms. Lutton found the word offensive here — and so did your ombudsman.

Except… when I went to read the online version, the sentence says “The Toledo Area Humane Society euthanized Hope on Tuesday.” No mention of the word killed.

And my printed copy of that day’s Blade has no mention of the story about the dog at all.

What I expect happened is that the version with the word “killed” may have gotten in to a few papers, but then the editors changed it for the version posted online.

That showed good judgment, your ombudsman thought.

I have to confess that I am very much a dog lover, and believe they are complex beings with individual personalities and valuable lives.

When perfectly healthy dogs are destroyed by those who can’t be bothered to find them homes, “killed” is the right term.

But when compassionate caregivers ended Hope’s misery, that was euthanasia, and I was happy to see the right term in The Blade.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/​o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 555 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me, at 1-888-746-8610 or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com.

I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.

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