Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: When should tragedy be news?

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

We face events daily that have caused someone profound grief.

On top of politics and sports and lifestyle, we cover pain in the community. It's an odd thing to acknowledge, but to reflect the region we must report death as well as life, whether that death is by accident, murder or otherwise.

One of the few exceptions is death by suicide, a subject newspapers have avoided longer than I've been in the business. We don't often discuss our reasons, but it's generally accepted that such a tragic end is so personal it should remain private. Media coverage feels intrusive beyond measure.

We have exceptions, though. We might report a suicide if it involves a politician or other public figure. Or if someone commits suicide in a public place, raising community questions about what happened. That's why the revelation last Monday that a man's body was hanging from a high-rise in downtown Sacramento initially set off concern in The Bee's newsroom.

Was it a suicide? That was just the first question of the day as we edited emotional and graphic photos, developed the reporting and then dealt with public reaction online that was worse than callous.

We didn't immediately know if it was suicide. Breaking news reporter Bill Lindelof called sources and posted a short story on He alerted photographer Randy Pench, who headed downtown, where a small crowd gathered as law enforcement and fire personnel worked to remove the body, hanging from a building at 12th and K streets.

Initially we debated how much to report. Multimedia director Mark Morris worked with Pench to enlarge his images. "There was information in that picture that indicated he used a harness of some kind. It helped me understand the chances were this was an accident," Morris said later.

Even if it was accidental, Morris never considered publishing a photo that included the body. "It would have been very disturbing to see," he said.

"The picture of the people (watching) from the street was, I thought, very powerful. It revealed shock and horror. I wanted to understand better, was it too much for them to take in, in hopes that might help guide me on what the reaction would be" to our published photographs.

Then we learned that law enforcement believed the death was accidental, that a would-be graffiti artist accidentally asphyxiated himself while trying to rappel down the tower in an old-fashioned manner. The technique uses friction from the rope against the body to slow descent, but in this case, the rope looped around Craig Michael Fugate's chest and legs, and constricted him.

Law enforcement found markers, etching tools and spray paint at the scene, and concluded that Fugate had intended to tag the building exterior.

Fugate was the second potential tagger to die accidentally in Sacramento within a little more than two weeks, a coincidence that warranted deeper coverage than we had planned.

"For me it was a practical matter," said Ken Chavez, senior editor for local news. "If it was a suicide we would have downplayed it. But when it became evident it was an accident and involved a tagger and was the second tagging incident in a month, it became much more newsy."

In the first case, the body of convicted tagger Andre Petkov was found by a street sweeper on March 16. Law enforcement reported that Petkov apparently fell from the Interstate 80 bridge east of Winters Street.

How many times have you looked at graffiti in odd spots, like a sign high over a freeway, and wondered how someone could possibly tag it? The two deaths showed such tagging to be a dangerous pastime.

Because both men are dead, there is no one to confirm what they were doing in the moments before they died. Fugate's uncle told The Bee last week that his nephew was a "sweet kid," an artist and a former member of the Navy who was discharged because of a disability. He said he had not known Fugate to deface property.

Comments from readers online showed little sympathy for either man. They became so ugly we decided to shut off the ability to comment on these Sacto 9-1-1 blog posts for two consecutive days and alert the digital team to monitor comments on follow-up stories.

On a developing story that required many decisions about taste and appropriate play, that decision was the easiest of all.

Reach Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar at (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar.