Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Naming names – when should the media bypass officials and identify victims?

The public questions are many and immediate when an accident takes as many lives – 10 – as in the head-on crash between a FedEx truck and a chartered bus full of high school kids near Orland.

Who died? What the heck happened? Were the drivers at fault? Was there a mechanical problem?

Mostly, though, what we all want to know is: Who died? Not just their name but a sense of their lives, their families, their community. We want to understand the loss.

Journalists rarely answer that question from official reports. Understandably, law enforcement officials and the coroner’s office withhold identities until families are fully notified.

But the world doesn’t wait for official press releases. Disaster news spreads quickly as people talk to loved ones, call or text, post to Facebook or elsewhere. We all know this; some of us have been part of the unofficial news circuit. For those of us in the news business, the issue becomes an ethical discussion: When do we publish names and why? How much do we rely on unofficial sources vs. law enforcement? Do we risk having a reader find out about a loved one through our coverage rather than from a minister or law enforcement official at their door? Our job is to verify information and inform the public, it is not our goal to be the first source of this information to the families affected.

After the April 10 crash, families rushed from Southern California to regional hospitals. That’s where Bee reporters first started learning about survivors and those killed.

But it took until last weekend before we learned that the FedEx driver, Tim Evans, was a member of our own community, a father and husband from Elk Grove with a sterling driving record.

We first learned Evans had Sacramento connections from posts on Facebook. The author of the first post we read declined to give Bee reporters Tony Bizjak and Richard Chang any additional information beyond the fact the unidentified driver was from this region.

On Twitter, several people were tweeting about the driver, again without naming him. We weren’t going to report information from Twitter that wasn’t confirmed, but one person tweeting the loss also was active on Foursquare, a social-media site that tells people where you are. The site showed he had just started his shift at an Elk Grove Bel Air, so reporter Loretta Kalb drove to the store to talk to him. That’s where we learned the driver’s name.

As it turned out, Kalb and Evans had a mutual friend on Facebook, and Kalb was able to look at the growing number of condolences on his Facebook page.

Generally we don’t use social media on its own to verify a story in our community. We didn’t last weekend, either. Managing Editor Scott Lebar and Continuous News Editor Ruby Bailey told reporters they would need to confirm Evans’ death with his family or close friends; the Bel Air employee did not know him well.

Kalb drove to Evans’ home, but family members there did not want to speak to the media. Some families touched by loss ask for privacy. Others want to be public about their loss and grief. We try to respect both situations. Instead, Chang was able to reach Evans’ mother-in-law, Debbie Otto, by phone to talk about Evans. At that point we published our first story identifying Evans as the FedEx driver.

Did we handle this part of the story respectfully? We were told later that some family members were upset that Otto talked to us at all.

Bizjak said, “I respect the privacy of a family in shock and grief, and I really feel for them.”

He said the size of the crash and the driver’s role were reasons to identify him as soon as we could. “So many people were talking about him, and his wife, on his Facebook page Saturday that, from my perspective, Facebook was acting like a public forum, spreading the word, allowing a lot of people to share.

“I felt it would be odd for us to ignore that reality and wait until Glenn County released (his) name,” Bizjak said.

I agree with Bizjak and view it as a public service to verify information on social media, especially since it can be wrong.

“The information flow goes faster than officialdom possibly can,” Lebar said about the decision to publish a name before official confirmation from law enforcement. That certainly was the case with this story. As I wrote this column last week, we still did not have official release of names of people lost to the crash, a week after it happened.

Lebar’s decision to require reporters to confirm Evans’ identity with family or a close friend was “a logical threshold,” Bizjak said. “It struck me as being respectful to Evans and his family. … I didn’t want to print his name without getting a direct interview with someone close to him.”