Ten years ago, a young man took his life in Florida. His parents, who lived in New York, sat shiva with their other children. A journalist from a South Florida newspaper called me with questions about the suicide. His story, he said, would help educate the public and prevent similar tragic deaths, especially copycat suicides by friends.
It seemed an important story to write. I conveyed to him that copycat suicides are rare, do not happen immediately, and that kids mourn for each other.
I said I would be happy to discuss the issue further, but only after the family got up from shiva. It was inappropriate, I said, to write about the boy while the family was still sitting shiva.
He responded that as a journalist he had an obligation to cover the story. I pressed again, telling him the mother of the boy was in serious shock and that if she read his story during shiva it could seriously affect her emotional state.
The journalist was nonplussed. He said his obligation was to journalism more than to a mourning family.
His newspaper published the story.
One evening during the shiva, the grieving mother could not sleep and went online, where she read the story recounting the horrors of her son’s suicide. Sure enough, she experienced a serious emotional reaction.
This crystallized for me that for some journalists, the “story” takes precedence over everything else. And no, it was not about educating the public and preventing suicide tragedies – that was merely this journalist’s entry point, a self-rationalization.
The New York Post’s front-page headline on Sunday, January 5, concerning the brutal murder of Menachem Stark, reminds us of the primal motive of many journalists no matter the cost and consequence to a victim’s family and friends.
A grieving widow and her young children were sitting shiva the day following Menachem Stark’s burial. The Post chose, on that very day, to run a front-page photo of Menachem Stark dressed in chassidishe garb along with the screaming headline “Who Didn’t Want Him Dead?”
With that reprehensible headline, based on allegations and unnamed sources, the Post acted as tabloid executioner, transforming a murder victim into the guilty party and tormenting his mourning family even further.
This wanton “journalism” is as cruel and inhumane as are Stark’s killers.
What professional obligation, what standard of journalism, did the Post meet? What value of reporting was delivered to its readership?
As a result, rightful condemnation rang forth from every corner of New York City and beyond. Community leaders, elected officials, tweeters, bloggers, and others chastised the Post throughout the day.
The Post’s response? “We stand by our story.”
To the general public, the Post headline is soon to be forgotten and of little value.
To the Stark family, it is permanently embedded in their psyche and of great emotional harm.