When the press releases arrive, you shudder.
Another young person drowns in a local swimming hole, lake or river. Or as in the case a few days ago, a 19-year-old dives into German Lake and is critically injured.
All the incidents are tragedies — including the two dozen or so drownings in the state so far this year. And although the media report all of those tragedies, some get more attention than others — not because one life is more valuable than another’s, but because sometimes reporting news depends on multiple factors.
Obviously, an accident gets more coverage when news staff learns about a rescue or search while it’s actually happening. That was the case in May when a young woman tubing in the Blue Earth River was reported missing and a search ensued. A reporter heard the police dispatcher sending rescuers, and so he was there to witness the recovery operation.
That was not the case with a drowning in June at Hiniker Pond, which happened the weekend of the Mankato air show. The one news reporter on duty that weekend was not in the office when the scanner traffic indicated an emergency that early evening at the Mankato park, so we weren’t aware of the drowning until a news release was emailed to the newsroom later that night. Even the release was handled by an outside agency, most likely because city staff were at the air show at the time of the call.
A letter to the editor appeared in The Free Press after that weekend, criticizing the paper for not doing a longer story on the man drowning at Hiniker, comparing it the coverage of the Blue Earth River drowning. The writer pointed out that the longer story was about a white woman — the implication being that the drowning of 23-year-old Madi Omot Nyigow was deemed less important news.
The writer gave us more credit for being calculating than we are (and more racist). We can’t respond to emergencies we don’t know about. And the reality is that even when we hear about them, it’s not a guarantee we can get there, depending on distance, staff availability and deadlines. Truthfully, sometimes the story length can just depend on which reporter tackles the assignment. Some choose a more straightforward, here-are-the-facts approach; some more instinctively look for the human drama and gather those details. And sometimes the difference in stories is tied to the direction, or lack of, given by an editor.
News does not come in neat little boxes that we fill up. News is messy globs of information mixed in with particles of judgment, timing and luck. And sometimes the luck consists of getting timely tips from our readers, who we consider to be on our team — our extra eyes and ears.
Every lost life probably deserves a full-length story. We know there are multiple personality profiles — which we label as “A Life Remembered” — that we could do every year on area residents who have died, but we often focus on the more prominent names. We do, however, try to mix up our selections from the well-known businessman to the dedicated MoonDogs fan whose seat in the stands is noticeably empty.
News is not a science, but we are dedicated to experimenting with how to get our readership relevant information and stories in the ways, shapes and forms available to us, including print, website and social media.
But we’d much rather have a ho-hum front page or a few less web hits if it means a few more lives are not lost to tragedy.
Kathy Vos is day news editor. She can be reached at 344-6357 or kvos@ mankatofreepress.com.