Brian Sandford: Covering sensitive topics requires consideration
The phone rang off the hook last week with calls about Rollie, the dog who was put down recently at Carson City Animal Services after her owner couldn’t pay recovery fees in time.
Television stations in Reno and Las Vegas called. The Associated Press sought permission to use our photo. After the AP picked up the story, it ran in newspapers statewide and beyond.
When animals are harmed, it sparks a thunderstorm of public outrage like few other things can. Many readers were infuriated that a healthy dog whose owner was longing for its return was put to sleep.
Readers didn’t just comment on the situation; they commented on our coverage of it. Some wondered why we didn’t run a front-page story about the issue every day this past week. Others accused us of sensationalizing the issue by writing Tuesday’s story. Still others took issue with the fact that we’d run a letter to the editor about the woman’s experience in the first place, asking whether we research everything that runs in letters to ensure it’s all accurate. I thought I’d share some of the answers to their questions in this column.
When it comes to accuracy, we give letter writers the benefit of the doubt. We also err on the side of free speech in our Opinion pages. Many of the issues people write about are too ambiguous to check on anyway; they often address hot-button topics such as the Affordable Care Act, the intentions of local service groups or government entities, and horse roundups.
The letter in question ran on the same day as a story about an event raising money to build a new animal shelter. This was a coincidence. Our letters queue up, and we run them in the approximate order in which they were received. If we’d had any ill intent toward Animal Services, we certainly wouldn’t have covered its fundraiser.
Once the city decided to close Animal Services for three days for “intensive training,” the issue became news. That’s the point at which it didn’t just affect the dog’s owner or Animal Services. It affected the public.
There was plenty of outrage Tuesday through Thursday, but “people are angry” isn’t really news. The next update to the story came Friday, when a lawyer for the dog’s owner discussed filing a lawsuit and Animal Services reopened, drawing picketers.
One reader complained that we’d put our initial story on the front page in an effort to sensationalize the issue and sell newspapers. We didn’t play it on Page A1 precisely because we didn’t want to sensationalize. We ran it on Page A3.
We put a lot of thought into how we cover things, and readers don’t always agree with us. You’re always welcome to contact me at the email address below with your thoughts.
Editor Brian Sandford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.