Ever since I moved to our beloved Rock 10 years ago, I have been intrigued by the number of serious, often weird crimes that are committed on this mostly rural island with fewer than 80,000 usually kind, civil and mellow people. Dare I remind you of the following items that have run in the South Whidbey Record and Whidbey News-Times recently?
A sailor from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island was accused of having sex with a teenage boy in his parents’ RV. A pizza vendor brutally killed his wife and buried her in Freeland so he could have time to spend with his mistress. An elderly woman from Clinton went to California, shot her equally elderly sister and then hanged herself in jail while awaiting trial – all after placing her own obit in The Record. An Oak Harbor man was accused of repeatedly raping his own stepdaughter. After previously being busted for drugs at Walmart, a man took his girlfriend and kicked in the door of a South Whidbey house with terrified occupants inside, trying to avoid arrest by a sheriff’s deputy. An Oak Harbor pastor pled guilty to raping a 15-year-old girl who is a member of his parish. And, of course, most recently a Freeland man shot his girlfriend in the head while they argued in her car – with their 10-month-old son in the back seat — then killed himself.
Those of us who have come here from big cities are used to hearing this kind of disturbing news all the time. You can’t escape it. But here on Whidbey, it seems to be harder to take. Often, it’s because we all know so many of our neighbors and it’s painful to hear that someone we know has become a victim – or a perpetrator.
Why make the victim’s family suffer by publishing this stuff? And why make the rest of us feel sad, uncomfortable, unsafe or worse by sharing the gory details?
The recent horrendous killing of the young woman in a car by her boyfriend while their toddler watched has put a spotlight on this fairly widespread community sentiment. And that brings me to my questions, dear Rock dwellers: What don’t you want to know about crime on our island and what do you wish nobody would tell you?
When I studied journalism at the Udub a half century ago, young reporters were drilled to focus on the five W’s and an H: who, what, when, where, why and how. Tell your readers what they need to know. Do it without a lot of flowery adjectives and leave out your own opinions.
I followed that practice in my nearly 20 years at the Los Angeles Times, and I see it followed carefully by my colleagues here at the News-Times and Record. What has overtaken journalism since I studied it in the 1960s can be summed up in just two words: the internet. While “traditional” journalists usually still follow the old rules, everybody else gets to say, write and post whatever they want on social media – verified or not, without any restriction on “good taste” or “community standards.”
In the case of the murdered young woman, quite a few people were upset to read the horrible details in this newspaper. They worried about the effect that would have on her family and her children – legitimate and compassionate concerns. But would there have been any less effect on them if the newspaper simply reported it in one sentence: A woman (unidentified) was murdered this afternoon and her killer (identified by the sheriff) then shot himself. Would that have been better, since we all know that social media exploded with details – some correct, many not?
There is a fine line between telling people what they need to know about what’s going on in their community and offering sensational or titillating details just to grab their attention.
I believe The Record was correct to publish an accurate story, complete with the five W’s and an H. It gave me the correct, if horrifying, information about what had happened in the place where I live. I was pleased to see that the mothers of the victim later complimented the reporter on her fair and accurate story.
More than ever in our digital information age, we really need trustworthy information – sometimes even when we’d rather not know it.
• Harry Anderson is a retired journalist and a columnist and proofreader for the Whidbey News Group.