Where is the boundary between responsible reporting and sensationalism? When the Steamboat Today chose to run the photograph of Max Knight being carried in a body bag, was that responsible journalism or sensationalism -- something to attract attention and draw readers?
I suppose it depends on whether you are an editor looking to attract readers or a reporter looking to write a juicier story or the family seeing the picture and reading the latest article. Whatever happened to ethics in journalism and just sticking with the facts rather than sensationalizing them?
I am referring to staff reporter Christine Metz's article "Knight died of natural causes," printed in Wednesday's edition of the Today. The reporting is OK initially. The cause of death was ruled as "heart failure and the manner of death as natural." What Metz's article didn't report was that the heart failure was caused by a heart condition in which the arteries grow through heart muscle rather than through fatty tissue. The heart muscle restricts the blood flow, which can bring on heart failure. It's the same type of condition that causes the heart failures of young athletes who collapse and die on the football field or the basketball court. It's a condition that can bring death at any time.
Rather than investigate and report the cause of the heart failure, Metz chose to shift her focus to a more sensational detail -- the blood-alcohol level. She starts by writing, "Toxicology reports indicated Knight's blood-alcohol content was 0.281." OK, that is a fact. It also is a fact that the coroner did not attribute his heart failure to alcohol consumption.
But reporting a 0.281 blood-alcohol level was not really sensational enough. So Metz had to add, "more than three times the legal driving limit." What is the relevance of adding that interpretation of the fact? Max didn't own a car, didn't have a driver's license, and he never drove a vehicle. But Metz apparently didn't investigate those details about Max. Had Max died behind the wheel of a car in a car crash, the blood-alcohol level would have been a relevant fact. How relevant is it when it is not listed as a cause of death by the coroner?
However, Metz was not done. Apparently, the blood-alcohol level was not sensational enough. Toward the end of her article she added, "The two had been drinking alcohol Sunday and took chocolate-covered psilocybin mushrooms about 5 p.m. that night, according to the Eagle County Sheriff's Office report." She chose to report this despite the fact that earlier in her article she reports that according to the coroner's report, "no traces of illegal drugs were found in his body."
When the coroner's report rules death as a result of heart failure, which was caused by a genetic condition -- not alcohol, not psilocybin mushrooms -- and when the report also says that no traces of illegal drugs were found in his body, is it journalistic responsibility to spend more time reporting the alcohol and alleged mushroom use, or is it merely a way to sensationalize a story? I suppose it is more interesting to lead readers to speculate that perhaps drugs and alcohol caused his heart failure.
I don't know Metz. I don't know how experienced she is as a journalist. Hopefully, this letter will prompt her to re-examine the code of ethics that responsible journalists should follow and will therefore improve her reporting skills as a journalist, sticking to the facts and avoiding the sensationalizing. Perhaps more blame should fall on an editor who allows such a story to reach print without noticing the obvious contradictions between the coroner's report and the innuendo of the sheriff's report.
When Max's friends and members of his family complained to Scott Stanford, the editor, about his insensitivity about running the photo of Max in the body bag, he said that he was sorry we were offended but that he was within the boundaries of journalistic practice.
I suppose that he and Metz can make the same claims about Metz's article. But that leads me back to my initial question: Where is the boundary between responsible journalism and sensationalism? Perhaps the newspaper might want to change its name to The Steamboat Enquirer so that their readers have a better idea of what to expect.
Max Knight's stepfather