A delicate balance

Mental breakdowns & news coverage

A prominent member of the community has a mental breakdown resulting in a public spectacle. What role should compassion play in handling the story?

By Harlan Spector

Harlan Spector is city editor, Medina County Gazette, Medina, OH.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 3 (June 1989), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

The phones didn’t stop ringing that day. Every time you picked up one you knew what was coming. It was gut wrenching.

And then the letters started. It seemed they would never stop.

The story went like this: A dentist in town had a mental breakdown. On a spring day in 1986, he took a walk down a busy street, removing his clothing as he went. He took a swing at a police office who tried to stop him. Soon other officers arrived. When they tried to get hold of the naked man, he became violent. A couple of police officers were injured. He bit one on the hand. Another was taken to the hospital with a back injury.

Finally, an animal warden who was nearby helped get the man under control with a device used to restrain animals.

The story ran on the front page. Many readers who called and wrote were absolutely livid. Some knew him, some didn’t. Why did you use his name? Why did you put it on the front page? How can you be so insensitive? How could you do that to his family? How could you ruin his reputation? Some demanded a public apology. One guy threatened to alter my face.

It was the worst beating the Medina County Gazette had taken in my seven years here.

Three years later, I still think we did the right thing. And if it happened again, I’d play it the same way.

I don’t think there’s much question such an incident merits a story of some kind. The tough calls, the most controversial ones, were using his name and story placement.

In most cases, we do not use a suspect’s name unless he has been charged. The dentist wasn’t charged. Police said he would undergo psychological evaluation.

Why name him? Mainly because he committed an act of violence. Attacking police officers is a serious matter. In withholding names of suspects not charged, you have to make a distinction. If person is not charged for lack of evidence, it’s one thing. If he’s not charged based on a political and/or administrative decision, it’s another.

I don’t think a police decision on such a matter should dictate a news decision, especially on a case so sensitive. You have to ask yourself, if this guy was a drifter, would he have escaped criminal charges?

But it is who the man was that made the strongest case for identifying him. Being a medical professional means carrying a greater degree of public trust than most people.

Thus, I think newspapers have a duty to hold medical professionals to a higher degree of accountability.

It comes down to this: His patients had a right to know.

If they then decide to stay with their dentist or drop him – if they “destroy” his practice, as the Gazette was charged with doing – that’s their decision. That’s a decision they should have a right to make.

If the man wasn’t identified and later snapped with a patient in his chair, then where do we stand? How do we justify our actions then?

There was some disagreement in the newsroom on the story placement. One editor believed it should run on page two with other crime briefs. Front-page treatment was sensational, more than one in the newsroom said (a sentiment shared by many readers). They argued it was exploiting a man’s psychological problem.

My motive for playing it on front was rather simple. It was the most extraordinary local story of the day. Anything farther back would be underplaying.

We’d really have to examine our motives for that.

Some of our readers would call my criteria for front-page news insensitive. I didn’t worry about his career, his family. And I won’t take responsibility for the story’s impact on those things. I guess that difference in perspective is what most often puts the media in the public’s doghouse.

Human nature is funny. When bizarre events happen, they dominate conversations in restaurants, stores, offices, banks and newsrooms. Yet put in print something that was yesterday’s conversation piece and it just may blow up in your face.

A postscript: After some friends of the dentist asked why we didn’t try to find out what he was going through, we attempted to approach that subject.

It’s not only fair, it would shed insight to the stresses of dentistry. To our surprise, we learned dentistry is quite a stressful line of work.

We were turned away by the family.

As it turned out, the story did not destroy the man’s practice. He apparently received some psychological help and his shingle is still in place.