Posted, Jan. 3, 2005
Updated, Jan. 3, 2005

Still Missing
Stories lose their news value in the newspaper, but may never lose value with the family and friends involved.

By Mary Sanchez (more by author)


Interested in diversity? Check out our diversity seminars.

Sign up to receive Journalism with a Difference by e-mail:

* Click here (sent Tuesdays)

My friend's face is lit by the candle she is holding. I watch a tear trickle down her face, and feel my own lip quiver. I'm attending a candlelight vigil for a missing woman, something I've done dozens of times as a reporter.

But this is different. I know many of the people here. This story -- the disappearance of Summer Shipp -- is personal.

Summer Shipp, 54, disappeared Dec. 8. She was canvassing a Kansas City neighborhood, part of her marketing job. Her ex-husband called me a few days after her disappearance, desperate for newspaper coverage.

I've known him for years through neighbors and friends. I took the information from him, nervously listening to his voice crack, and called an editor.

Then, I began to watch the TV news and read the coverage in my paper, with a different eye. It is the same eye that helplessly watched my friend cry at the vigil.

Good reporters know every detail in a story is important. They know accuracy should trump everything.

But Shipp's disappearance reinforces the idea that even when we get the basic facts right, media can still draw valid criticism. So often, we are simply doing the best we can, given the constraints of the industry.

Coverage of Shipp's disappearance took familiar twists.

At first, the missing woman was big news. The candlelight vigil was on the front of the metro section. A larger feature on her ex-husband and his daughter made A-1, the front page. Friends were interviewed on television as they searched for her; her photo and physical description were displayed before the first commercial of the evening broadcast.

Then, Shipp became a brief on the inside pages, simply noting that police were still looking. A TV segment briefly showed her car, surrounded by yellow police tape. It looked like file footage. No one was interviewed.

I know TV time is like news space, precious -- a commodity doled out as the day's news is ground into a 30-minute time slot, minus commercials.

But still, I cringed.

I wondered if Shipp's family would be offended. The passage of time was diminishing the story's news value. And yet, more time passing only intensified the Shipp family's pain.

Then, the inevitable happened.

A bigger story broke. A pregnant woman was found murdered in Northern Missouri, her baby cut from her womb. Summer Shipp disappeared from the pages of the paper, the scripts of the news broadcasts.

Journalistically, I understand this.

Personally, I worry that we in the media inadvertently trivialize and multiply the pain a family feels at such moments. Every nuance of how we cover events can affect a family already in trauma.

I recall the death of a Missouri state trooper in 1999. Sgt. Robert G. Kimberling was shot by the driver of a car he stopped.

In some of the reporting, there was the insinuation that something had gone wrong with the traffic stop, that the trooper had broken protocol, and perhaps contributed to his own death.

As the only available extra reporter one afternoon, I was sent to St. Joseph, about an hour north of Kansas City, to help with coverage.

I went to the family's home and saw Kimberling's wife and relatives cry that some media made it sound like this man who had always prided himself on being by the book, had somehow caused his own death.

It took me two hours, and his fellow troopers breaking down in tears as they re-enacted the events, to get an answer: Sgt. Kimberling had done nothing wrong.

Then I listened as a TV reporter did a live shot, emphasizing a mortal mistake by Sgt. Kimberling.
Maybe she had a tight deadline or had been given little direction about advancing the story.

I doubt this reporter meant to be harmful to the family, or a sloppy journalist. But with that live shot, she unfortunately was both.

When one of my closest friend's sisters was murdered, I was frustrated with some of the reporting.

Laura Watson Dalton, 29, was murdered by Jonathan Lee Memmer in 1999. He also killed Maria Lehner, 27, in a two-day spree. For the most part, the stories were OK, a few even soothing to the Watson family.

Except for the reporter who took the autopsy report and made some assumptions about sexual trauma that had occurred to Dalton's body.

Laura's father read the account in the paper. And then collapsed on the living room floor.

Is reporting a job? Of course it is.

And the best reporters know how to keep a proper distance between themselves and their subjects. Thankfully, every story is not personal. And if it is, ethics should excuse us from the assignment as news.

But it is good to remember that our job is someone else's life. Maybe the worst moment of their lives. A nugget of information tweaked the wrong way, or left out entirely, can cause horrible pain to a family already distressed.

Summer Shipp now rarely makes the TV news or appears in the newspaper. From a news perspective, that makes sense.

But personally, I focus on this fact: Summer Shipp is still missing.