As journalists and journalism educators, we watched with dismay the series of events that transpired over the past two weeks. First, a reporter included too many private details in a story about a local woman’s death, adding to the pain of a grieving local family and offending many others. Then the family and their friends lashed out at the reporter and the paper, assailing the insensitivity of the article. 

The paper responded by editing out the inappropriate details in the online article, but the newspaper had already been printed. The publisher also issued an apology online and then in the next print newspaper. Finally, a former journalist published a thoughtful editorial about the fact that we all make mistakes, which is certainly true and well illustrated by this whole event.

It’s not possible to undo the damage that was done to the family, their friends and others in the community. But it is possible for this episode to lead to some good. We might, for example, unite around the idea that we need to better inform everyone — from journalists to community members, young and old — about the warning signs of and the appropriate ways to report on suicide, which kills far more people than homicide.

We might also acknowledge, as Matt Baron wrote last week, that when people make mistakes — particularly when they make mistakes without ill intent — the response should be to educate, not to ostracize. It’s understandable that people’s immediate reaction was anger, but it’s more productive if that is followed by efforts to ensure that this kind of error is not repeated.

We might also take an honest, heartfelt apology at face value, and note that the writer of that apology, Dan Haley, has a many decades-long record as a caring community member and someone who has tried to foster better understanding and more compassion toward community members on the margins, including those who struggle with mental illness. In fact, he has written openly and honestly about such struggles within his own family. He didn’t make excuses for why this story slipped through with too many private details; he apologized and acknowledged the harm the story caused.

Finally, we might recognize that a locally owned community newspaper has tremendous value, even if it occasionally makes mistakes and offends. It is produced under pressure by people who are just as fallible as you and us but who dedicate their lives to helping our community be better informed. 

We should continue to hold the Wednesday Journal to high standards, and continue engaging it in conversation about what matters to our community. For more than three decades, this newspaper has played a vital role in Oak Park and River Forest, informing us about issues that affect our lives, from schools to politics, from business to sports, and from the lives we lead to the deaths we mourn. It connects us to one another and contributes to our community, and we’d be poorer without it.

We earnestly hope that those who have been harmed find healing over time, and that we all find a way to forgive a rookie reporting mistake that was never intended to cause pain.

Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin is associate professor and Suzanne McBride is interim chair of the Journalism Program at Columbia College Chicago.

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