Sunday, April 27, 2008

Letter from the Editor

When covering funerals, we aim to respect wishes of the hurting
Matt Von Pinnon
Published Sunday, April 27, 2008

A recent letter to the editor accused The Forum of being invasive and irresponsible for photographing the family of Pelican Rapids (Minn.) High School bus crash victim Jessica Weishair outside her funeral at the school.

I can understand and appreciate that sentiment.

But it also affords me an opportunity to explain how our newspaper covers funerals and memorial services.

First, though everyone’s life is worth a story, we can’t realistically document every gathering to celebrate a life. We have to choose, and that’s not always easy.

Some people live public lives, and their deaths, followed by public memorials and funerals, are often of great public interest. We try to cover those.

Sometimes, just the opposite is true. Sometimes, the lonely funerals of people who quietly made a difference are newsworthy. Often, those are the most interesting.

And then there are the services for people who may not command our attention one day but whose deaths or manner of death thrusts their lives or the lives of their families into the spotlight overnight.

Think soldiers who die in combat. Think victims of violent crime. Think a teen at the cusp of adulthood taken in a tragic accident – a teen like Jessica Weishair.

Jessica’s death gripped an entire community, an entire region – partly because of the manner in which she died.

We at the newspaper didn’t race to Pelican Rapids in the aftermath to expose the family or the larger community.

Rather, we raced to Pelican Rapids because we cover that Minnesota community, and this was a story dear to the community and its neighbors.

We consider Pelican Rapids part of our backyard, as do many of our readers.

We try to cover the community in good times and in bad, something I’m not sure the other media who descended on the town following the bus accident can say.

After deciding we wanted to cover Jessica’s funeral, we contacted the funeral director in charge of arrangements, as we always do in these situations.

We asked the funeral director to convey to the family that we’d like to be present, if they were OK with that.

In Jessica’s case, the family said a reporter could attend the service, but they didn’t want a photographer inside the gym where it took place.

In this particular case, we did not further ask if the family wished for no photos to be taken outside the school. We assumed – rightly or wrongly – it would be OK, since they specifically asked that we not be inside.

Because of that, we had a photographer remain outside the school and at a distance, on public property, and take photos following the public service attended by 1,000.

If we misinterpreted the family’s wishes, we apologize.

Generally, when our reporters attend funerals, they go just as observers to document what was said or what they saw. We generally don’t ask questions of those attending and never approach the family without prior approval or through a third party.

Sometimes those at services want to talk about their friend or loved one. That’s often the case.

But we never try to hound in these circumstances. It’s not the right time or place. We aim to be respectful and cover services as we would want if it were our family or friends – because occasionally it is.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579 or

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Give me a break! I can't believe this. He is saying that he assumed it would be ok with the family to take that photo.. WHATEVER! BLAH BLAH BLAH!

I am so proud of Amanda Dutchers letter to the Editor!

Why haven't you posted her letter on the blog Jim??