Close to home

When your newsroom is part of the story

How do you cover a major news story when your staff is involved? KIRO-TV was forced to learn when one of its reporters was murdered.

By Bryan Thielke

Bryan Thielke is assignment editor for KIRO-TV, Seattle, WA.

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. 6 (September 1989), pp. 3,5.

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.

 

It had all the elements crime reporters have come to love – sex, murder and a big name personality. But before this story was filed, we would come to learn more than we cared to about the human and professional costs of violence when it strikes close to home.

When the news staff at KIRO-TV got word of a double murder August 1, we had no idea one victim was a friend, colleague and relative. And we had no idea that we were about to become the focus of lead story news throughout the Northwest.

It’s something every reporter wonders about and even fears – being on the other side of the mic or notebook. What’s it like to be a principal source in a news story at the same time you are covering it?

It started with an early morning stakeout at the scene of a possible triple homicide. By 10 a.m. the medical examiner’s office had confirmed that veteran KIRO reporter Larry Sturholm was found stabbed to death in the home of a woman who was also murdered. A third person was hospitalized with self-inflicted knife wounds.

Larry’s brother Phil Sturholm is our executive editor, and he sat a few feet away from me as I got the news from the M.E. I found myself putting my own emotions on hold as I told Phil of the death of his brother and got on with the business of covering this major story. It would not be the last time that day that personal feelings took a back seat to getting the story.

As other members of the staff learned of the apparent double murder/suicide attempt, they began to speculate about the relationship between the three people. Some staffers who were close to Larry knew of his supposed romantic involvement with a woman who lived where the crimes were committed. And they knew of a jealous rival.

The love-triangle angle was especially hard for us. Many of us know Larry’s wife of 22 years. All of us work with his brother. For us to report on an affair between Larry and the female victim would cause the family even more pain. We were torn between doing the best job possible and protecting our friends.

No doubt those who worked closest with Larry and knew him personally were the first to suspect an “affair.” Another station was the first to report it.

Their reporter cited a vague source in the police department. That station’s decision to bring up the affair, forced us into action. Getting skunked made us more aggressive.

Phil urged us to vigorously pursue the story of his brother’s death, not to hold back. Phil’s urging helped all of us do what we knew, as journalists, had to be done.

Our field reporters, Brian Wood and Essex Porter, were quickly told that the victim was Larry. We wanted them to be able to begin coping with the loss of their friend before having to go on the air “live” with the news.

As word spread to the rest of the media, Wood and Porter were photographed by The Seattle Times as they covered their co-worker’s death. Their

photo appeared on the front page of the evening paper in living color under a bold headline. Now the shoe was on the other foot. We were the “hook.” We were the ones answering questions. We were the ones hounded by cameras and by phone calls.

One reporter complained that the caption on the picture presumed to know what he was thinking. We kidded him that this is what we do every day in our work. Clearly both reporters, and the newsroom in general, felt uncomfortable being the focus of media attention.

The decision was made to provide dubs of Larry’s work to the other TV stations requesting them. And we designated one of our anchors as a spokesperson for interviews. But we refused requests by other stations to come into our newsroom and videotape the grieving news staff at work.

None of us wanted to be taped. We were in shock yet still trying to do our jobs as journalists. Of course, we often ask the bereaved if we can come into their homes, shoot video, ask questions. Now that we’ve seen things from the other side, I think we’ll still ask, but we’ll be more understanding when the answer is “no.”

However, we refused (and are still refusing) requests from the “tabloid” TV show “A Current Affair.” They want our help in doing what they call a “tribute” to Larry. Knowing their work, we feel the focus will be on the love triangle, not on Larry’s legacy of feature reporting, his record-breaking number of Emmys, and the family and friends who loved him. While we recognize the need to cover the story as hard news, we hope to avoid sensationalizing the personal relationships among the two victims and the suspect.

The story took an enormous emotional toll on our staff. There were tears, quiet days and many trips to the local watering hole. We coped as journalists do: with black humor, cynicism and hard work.

At least one reporter on the police beat wants to get off crime coverage. Others say they’ll be more careful in their choice of words when describing crime scenes. Words like “brutal,” “bloody” and “horrible” hurt a lot more when you know the victims.

Still, we know that we will have to continue to cover awful crimes. And to some extent that will involve using and exploiting the victim and the family of the victim. We wouldn’t do much differently in this case, and we probably won’t do much differently in the next. We may feel the pain of the family and friends a little bit more than we did in the past – now that we know how it feels to be on the other side of the microphone.