February 26, 2010

Making rare decisions on coverage, comments

— Choosing to raise a .44-caliber revolver, point it at someone's head and pull the trigger is a tough decision whether you think the gun is loaded or not whether you're too high to know it or not.

It also is tough deciding how much of that story -- which played out last year in a South Portland basement and was recounted this week in a Cumberland County courtroom -- to share with readers.

Unlike Bruce Lavallee-Davidson, whom a jury on Wednesday found guilty of making the wrong decision and accidentally killing his friend, an executive editor can get help deciding what to do.

That was the case in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram newsroom, where Deputy Managing Editor Angie Muhs, City Editor Noel Gallagher and I discussed, debated and ultimately decided how to handle our coverage of the Lavallee-Davidson trial.

The decision-making began with discussions about how graphic we should get in reporting the trial. We're not in the habit of holding things back from our readers, but we're also not in the habit of offending them. In this case, it was easy to envision many of our readers being offended -- if not repulsed -- by the details of a fatal shooting that took place during a nine-hour sex party involving three men, two guns and countless recreational drugs.

Fortunately, one of our best and brightest reporters, Trevor Maxwell, was covering the trial. He probably didn't need the warning, but we cautioned him not to get too graphic in his accounts of witness testimony. Throughout the three-day trial, Maxwell did a terrific job of creating a compelling narrative that was comprehensive without being offensive or too descriptive. (We also were sensitive to not providing too much information about the drug use that reportedly took place during the sex party.)

Because we're a multimedia company, our concerns about our trial coverage extended to how we would handle it on our Web sites. Someone suggested that we should not permit online commenting for this particular story, an uncharacteristic move for us.

In general, we allow readers to comment on our stories as an unspoken invitation for them to criticize, compliment or add insight to our coverage. Sometimes they write something that provides us with a tip for a follow-up story.

Readers have the power to self-police comments by reporting abuse. Three such reports for any comment automatically remove it from our site.

In this case, however, we didn't think that was enough to protect the average reader from a torrent of graphic, vulgar and lewd comments this story was likely to elicit. Past experience has taught us that controversial stories such as these generally result in a flood of comments we wouldn't want our grandmothers, spouses or children to read.

We decided there was little to be gained by providing a public forum for people to comment on this story. We decided that although we might get a few thoughtful, insightful and well-reasoned comments, the vast majority would be offensive to most of our readers. In our experience, anonymous (commenters don't have to reveal their identities) can equal venomous when it comes to a story of this nature.

The other reason -- although it played only a small role in our decision -- for not allowing comments on this story was a practical one: Manpower. We have the ability to censor comments, but on any given day one of our stories might attract up to 300 comments. Very popular stories -- and this was one of the most read stories on our Web site in months -- might double that number.

It would have required a staffer working around the clock to monitor this one.

It's worth noting that the decision to disallow online commenting wasn't the only tough one we made on this story. Although we initially thought we were going to run the entire transcript of Lavallee-Davidson's police interrogation online, we ran excerpts instead. After reading the transcript, we decided running it verbatim would be as irresponsible as allowing comments on the story.

As editors of a public trust, we take our responsibilities very seriously. We feel a responsibility to be fair, to be truthful and to be accurate and objective. We also feel a responsibility to do what is right for our readers, even if that means making decisions that aren't popular with each and every one of them.

In this case, we're convinced we made the right decisions.

Scott Wasser is vice-president and executive editor of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and MaineToday Media. His column is filling in this week for MaineToday Media CEO Richard L. Connor's.

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