Addressing a reader's complaint: Yes, we do care
By Saundra Keyes
Editor of The Advertiser
The reader's complaint was blunt.
She's a long-time Advertiser fan whose company does business with us. But she felt we had compromised our image as a caring community newspaper by publishing a story recalling the 1988 Aloha jet accident that killed a Kaua'i-born flight attendant.
Didn't we realize how painful those memories are in this community? the reader asked. Didn't we care how much that story might hurt co-workers and relatives of Clarabelle "C.B." Lansing, who was sucked from the plane when a section of its fuselage tore off in flight?
The reader seemed surprised when I replied that our newsroom had wrestled with exactly those questions before publishing the story, a report by USA Today on Honolulu engineering consultant Matt Austin's prolonged investigation of the Aloha accident.
Our first decision, as always, was whether we regarded the story as newsworthy. It concerned an accident that happened almost 13 years ago - hardly a news flash - and one on which the National Transportation Safety Board long ago closed its files. We found the story significant, however, because an NTSB investigator described Austin's credentials as legitimate.
We were intrigued both by Austin's theories and by what motivated him to spend 12 years and $45,000 in research on the accident.
Once we decided to publish the USA Today report and our own interview with Austin, we discussed the stories' potential impact on Lansing's family and co-workers. While friends and family might be prepared for distressing stories in an accident's immediate aftermath, we knew they would be caught off guard by a story appearing so much later.
I therefore called Lansing's husband to let him know that both The Advertiser and USA Today would publish stories on the crash the following morning, and to ask him if anyone else should be alerted.
Business Editor Judi Erickson called Aloha's CEO, and based on conversation with him, added a paragraph to the story explaining that Aloha no longer flies the type of plane involved in the accident.
When I explained all this to the upset reader, she said her reaction to the stories might have changed if she had known about our actions - but she had no way of knowing,
Since that conversation some weeks back, I've thought about how seldom we explain ourselves to you, our readers. And I've realized how often we come across as uncaring - or simply careless - as a result.
Explaining how we approached the Aloha accident story might not change the opinions of readers who criticized us for publishing it, as several did in calls and letters.
But the After Deadline column's goal is not to persuade you that we always make perfect decisions. As our corrections and clarifications column shows, we sometimes get things wrong. And in daily critique sessions, even though our news judgments generally hold up in hindsight, we always look at ways we could have done things better.
This column will provide a forum for explaining the factors that shape our decisions and for exploring your concerns about our operations.
Column topics will be coordinated by The Advertiser's reader representative, John Simonds, a respected name in Hawai'i journalism since 1975. Before joining The Advertiser, John was managing editor, executive editor and senior editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. He previously worked as a correspondent for Gannett News Service, as a reporter and editor for the Washington Evening Star and the Providence (R.I.) Journal, and as a reporter for United Press International.
John is familiar to the many readers whom he has helped with concerns and questions, and he'll share summaries of those issues in this column.
Saundra Keyes can be reached at email@example.com.