Opinion Columns & Blogs

Joyce Terhaar: Amid chaos of breaking news, too much focus on suspect’s family?

How much should The Bee focus on a crime suspect or that person’s family when we respond to major breaking news stories?

That’s an issue raised by some readers in the aftermath of the recent police siege in Roseville, a crisis that began with an attack on one law enforcement officer. Final toll: two officers shot, four hit by shrapnel, one parolee shot in the hand and scraped up. That parolee, Sammy Nathan Duran, has since been charged with seven counts of attempted murder.

In a chaotic scene, Duran holed up and was captured after more than six hours and a police response of more than 100 officers from nearly a dozen agencies. A family fled their home after Duran broke in, and 15 other homes were evacuated overnight because of the standoff.

The Bee’s coverage began online that Friday with reporters and photographers tweeting updates from the scene and posting news stories and photos at sacbee.com. Saturday’s print coverage led with a photograph of a Sacramento police officer working to keep the public away from any line of fire between Duran and police. Sunday’s paper led with an emotional photograph of Duran’s brother and a family friend, with a smaller photo of an FBI evidence collector working the scene Saturday.

Which brings me to today’s discussion:

Why did The Bee show the suspect’s family at the scene instead of the officers who were injured? What about the families of officers who were shot? As one reader emailed to me: “I’m sure that the shooter’s family is struggling with what happened. Their grief, however, is at the very bottom of my list for those who we should feel sorry for.”

“What about the officers who were shot? What about their families?” the reader asked.

Another reader, Sharon Allen of Orangevale, wrote in a published letter to the editor: “Do you think we care at all about Sammy Duran’s family? I would rather see the family of the officer who were, I’m sure, scared and worried. What about the family who couldn’t go back to their house or the preschooler who didn’t know when they get to go home?”

While the questions were specific to the Roseville story, they are similar to those we might be asked after coverage of other breaking news as well, in which information tends to be available in fits and starts, and we might not yet be able to answer all questions or have images reflecting all angles of a story.

Breaking news is messy and chaotic and confusing, and information that comes out first far too often turns out to be at least partly wrong. Police or other officials are working fast to get information or take control of a scene, and their investigation at that point might just be information from a witness, for instance. Reporters are getting what they can from as many people at a scene as possible as well, relying on law enforcement for the facts but also interviewing family members, witnesses, neighbors.

The night of the Roseville siege, Twitter feeds from local media and police scanners show the confusion – reports of additional officers wounded are followed by assertions that no one else was hurt. Access to information was limited early on, with reporters kept well away from the scene. Bee photographer Hector Amezcua, who hustled to the hospital to try to photograph law enforcement officers as they waited to hear the condition of their colleagues, instead eventually was able to photograph only Roseville Police Chief Daniel Hahn talking to the media.

By Saturday afternoon, when Hahn talked to reporters at a 3 p.m. press conference, he released a more complete narrative of what happened Friday but also continued to make clear he would not release the names of injured officers. Two weeks later, those identities remain confidential.

Every law enforcement jurisdiction responds differently to the media. Bee reporter Sam Stanton, a veteran of many major breaking news stories, is convinced the Sacramento police or sheriff’s departments would have released far more information. “I really was just surprised at how little information they were willing to give us, especially in the wake of their woeful performance during the Galleria fire crisis,” Stanton said.

Ken Chavez, senior editor for local coverage, said the effort to protect police identities meant what might otherwise be a piece of the story – interviews with those in the line of fire, or their worried families – couldn’t be reported. “The police would have been apoplectic if we’d put pictures of police families in print in this situation.”

Instead, when Amezcua left the hospital to arrive at the crime scene perimeter that Friday, he found Duran’s family. He photographed the family and filmed a video in which they complained of a police overreaction and charged that Duran didn’t start the firefight.

Bee photographers responding to breaking news “look for compelling images that convey what the crime scene looks like as well as the emotional drama that is taking place in the surrounding area,” Multimedia Director Mark Morris said. “Access is critical, and once a perimeter has been established, photographers must do their storytelling from the fringe,” which limits the images they can capture.

Whether or not you like the Duran family’s role during the siege, it was part of the scene and should be reported. Visually, the photograph we published was one of the more emotional pictures from that evening, especially given the many serious images of officers working that we published Friday night and in Saturday’s printed edition.

It’s imperative that media report any allegations about police misbehavior as well. In this case, not only is law enforcement denying the allegations, but Duran’s trial ultimately will reveal far more details about what precisely happened. That’s when we might finally hear directly from officers in the line of fire, as they testify in the case.