Handle with care

Priest murder story required extra sensitivity

It’s the kind of problem every editor dreads: The story was of great local interest, but it was sure to shock and offend many readers.

By Sue Ann Wood

Sue Ann Wood is reader’s advocate for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 6 (September 1990), p. 4.

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 priest’s murder had been page-one, top-of-the-broadcast news in St. Louis. Father Mario Ross, well-known and popular at St. Louis University where he headed the campus ministry, had been fatally shot while in Knoxville for a conference.

Now, a week later, both Knoxville newspapers, according to AP, were quoting anonymous police sources as saying that “sexual paraphernalia” was found on the priest’s body, after he had been found dying in his rented car in an area known for prostitution.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Executive City Editor Laszlo Domjan knew that this news would be painful not only to the priest’s family and friends but to many in the St. Louis area’s large Catholic population.

By coincidence, the news had broken on the day of Ross’s funeral in St. Louis. Domjan turned to Harry Levins, senior writer and writing coach, to handle what now had become a super-sensitive story.

The first decision had to be whether the funeral story should be separate from the Knoxville story or the two combined into one. The need for a combined story became obvious when reporter Lisa C. Jones returned from covering the funeral. She said the Knoxville news, already being broadcast on St. Louis radio, was common knowledge among those at the funeral and several had mentioned it to her.

Even in the funeral service, Jones said, there had been several indirect references to the apparent circumstances of the murder. One prayer, printed in the program, asked forgiveness for Father Mario’s sins “committed through human weakness.” Levins used that as the ending for the story, thinking it might make Catholic readers “feel a little better,” he explained later. But the ending got cut when the story was shortened for the final edition.

While Jones got on the telephone to Knoxville to try to confirm information, Levins began putting the story together. He argued that the lead should be based only on the funeral. That would govern the headline, he pointed out.

There was discussion about using a combined lead, Levins said, but editors at city desk agreed to accept a first paragraph about only the funeral if he would put the Knoxville angle in the second paragraph. Any lower in the story would make it appear to be buried, they argued.

Details that the Knoxville newspapers had reported were more graphic than the “sexual paraphernalia” in the AP story. They included:

— A type of ring “designed to enhance sexual performance” was found on the priest’s body by emergency medical personnel.

— The priest, who was not in clerical garb, had spent time before the shooting in a bar frequented by prostitutes.

— His pants were unzipped, when he was found unconscious.

— A page from the Yellow Pages listing adult book stores was found in his car.

Levins put most of that information into his story, except that he used a euphemism, “sexual device”, instead of describing the ring. The more specific term and its description were used in some local TV newscasts.

In its final form, the story contained 25 paragraphs, with the lead on the funeral, the next seven paragraphs on the Knoxville information, and the rest on the funeral service, including several eulogistic quotes about Ross.

The decision about play of the story was made at the regular mid-afternoon meeting between the managing editor and news editors. The suggestion from city desk that the story and photo go on page 3A instead of page 1 met no objections. All agreed that the paper should not appear to be exploiting the sensational nature of the sexual aspects of the story.

The story went into the center of the page, under a three-column photo of Franciscan priests carrying the casket. The headline said: “Funeral Mass Is Held For Slain Priest.”

Managing Editor David Lipman said that he thought the story had been handled with appropriate care.

Still, many anguished and angry readers telephoned the reader’s advocate, my title as news ombudsman, to complain about the story when it appeared. The callers asked why “unproven” allegations had been printed about a good man who could not defend himself. One woman called the story “tabloid writing and filthy.”

I reported these reactions in my column that Sunday, explaining some of the discussions that had been held. And I told readers that I agreed with the way the story had been handled. Hurtful as it was to many readers, the news out of Knoxville was being widely reported by radio and television.

Had the Post-Dispatch failed to report it, readers could justifiably have accused the paper of a cover-up.

Post-Dispatch Editor William F. Woo wrote about the story in his personal column that Sunday, also speaking of the difficult decisions it had required editors to make.

“The press must be sensitive,” he wrote, “but if it suppresses a relevant fact, because it may be distasteful to particular readers, then it becomes harder to justify relevant facts in other stories that may upset different readers.

“It is a short step from a journalism that sacrifices the truth so as to avoid offending a special audience to a journalism that sacrifices the truth to please certain people.

“When you start down that road, you can go very quickly from honest journalism to a corrupt journalism that cannot be believed.”

I agree with Woo’s conclusions. The sordid circumstances surrounding the priest’s murder were handled, I thought, with as much care and sensitivity as possible. But I wish that the excerpt from the prayer about “human weakness” had not been cut out of the story. That might have eased some of the pain I heard in the voices of callers who did not want to believe what they read.