By Scott Underwood
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
While community-minded journalists take steps, when possible, to minimize unintended hardship for people affected by news articles, newspapers rarely make decisions based on potential collateral damage. Mission No. 1 is to serve readers by providing the news, good or bad.
This philosophy sometimes runs contrary to the approach expected by individual readers or groups of readers, particularly when they have a personal connection to a news story.
At The Herald Bulletin, recent coverage about a convicted murderer aroused such concerns.
We sent a photographer, videographer and reporter up to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City to interview death-row inmate Fredrick Michael Baer. The trip was planned after we learned that Baer was fully confessing his crimes and that he was on the verge of dropping the appeals process.
The Sunday after our interview with Baer, we published a lengthy article and sidebar with photos and posted a video of the Baer interview on our website. The video, in particular, sparked dozens of Facebook comments, some of which objected to the fact that we had dedicated the video and so much space in print to Baer. I also received three phone calls from readers who were upset that we had, in their opinion, glorified a monster.
Such a reaction, from an emotional standpoint, is understandable. Baer murdered 26-year-old Cory Clark and 4-year-old daughter Jenna at their Lapel area home on Feb. 25, 2004. It was one of the most heinous crimes in local history.
The intent of our coverage was not to generate sympathy for Baer or even to try to make sense of his atrocities (he was also identified in the aftermath of the double murder as a serial rapist). Our aim, rather, was to relate Baer’s state of mind, the state of his appeal, and the fact that he is considering dropping the appeal.
Reporter Jack Molitor, photographer Don Knight and videographer Andy Knight did an excellent job of addressing these aspects of the story, which was presented in a descriptive but straightforward manner. During the interview process, we attempted to contact the victims’ family to alert them that the story was scheduled for publication and also to ask whether they would be willing to sit for an interview. We did not receive a response and, out of respect for the family, did not hound them with additional requests.
Whatever your position is on the death penalty and the Baer case, the article and video provided new information about a topic of great public importance in Madison County. In the end, Baer’s case will cost the state well more than $1 million, and the pain from his horrible crimes continues, nine years later, to burn. We believe that reporting on developments in the Baer case and giving readers new insight is simply practicing good journalism.
While we regret any emotional trauma the Baer coverage might have generated, we must hold true to our mission of serving our readers by telling important news stories — even the painful ones.
Editor Scott Underwood’s column appears Mondays. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @THBEditor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 640-4845.