Put people first

I teach young men and women how to be journalists.

It’s a strange thing for me to think about because it’s not something I ever wanted to do.

I just wanted to report and write.

But things change. And here I am, telling young men and women to snap out of this inverted pyramid sleepwalk.

But let me back up a minute. A speaker at a recent Associated Press conference addressed a room full of pros about how to write enterprise stories.

Jack Lessenberry admonished us to put people first.

“Unless you want to start working for a living,” he said.

Indeed. People first.

You hear that? Unless you want to start working for a living, how about we look at the world like a person?

It’s funny how we have to constantly remind ourselves about this simple fact.

The stories we write, the tales we tell, each one touches a person in some fashion. So, how about this? Instead of running the news release and moving on, let’s take a closer look.

Last April, for example, our student publication received a news release from the police that officers shot and killed a man named Beau Appleton as they served a search warrant on his home.

There were few details because the investigation was ongoing, both regarding the original case and into the shooting.

Months passed, but I refused to allow our student reporters to let the story die.

What happened? What did the police find?

Today, the efforts of our Sunshine Law requests for reports paid off and we published more details about the raid.

Police kicked in his door, tossed flashbang grenades inside and entered. Beau shot at the police with a double-barreled shotgun and the police shot him dead. His wife was on a bed between him and the police. His two teenaged daughters were in adjacent rooms.

Apparently they found a little baggie of pot.

There are still plenty of unanswered questions. Will our readers ever get to know who this guy was as a person? Or will they only know him as the guy on the east side of town where the houses are small and unadorned as the person who shot at police after they broke down his front door?

Will we ever know why the police chose this tactic while the man’s family was home? Can a person hear someone yelling at them to put their gun down after experiencing a flashbang grenade?

It begs the question, wouldn’t it seem probable that a suspected drug dealer who is known to have guns would shoot at someone who breaks down his front door?

Drug dealers tend to deal with scallywags who are known to break into places to steal things like other people’s drugs, money and guns.

How and why the police decided to do what they did is irrelevant now. Obviously they had their reasons.

We should trust the police. We should be able to trust people in authority.

But journalists must hold them accountable. It’s a harrowing task to question authority, but it’s an important job.

Believe it or not, it takes hard work and persistence to find the truth or at least a clearer picture that lurks behind a sterile, impersonal news release.

Put people first.

  1. #1 by Dianna Bryant on November 21, 2013 - 10:55 pm

    I have wanted to more about this event since I first read about it in the DSJ. I am so please that your journalism students are digging deeper. It sounded kind of sketchy from the beginning. Why serve a warrant after 10 pm? Why enter in this manner? Where are all of the ‘castle doctrine’ advocates?

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