Editor Column: Mistake was made in reporting death of Rifle teen
Hindsight is 20/20.
The term rings true but offers zero solace. I made what I consider a substantial mistake last week in my reporting on the tragic circumstances of Kyle Scholla, the Rifle High School senior who died a little more than a week after falling off a moving car.
The young man, by all accounts shared in the course of reporting, had a promising future, and I join the many community members in offering thoughts and prayers to Kyle’s family and friends. This profession, journalism, makes us no strangers to tragedy. I can assure you that does not make it easier when the time comes to pick up the phone and hit the streets.
I, as did other news outlets that did their own work, reported that Kyle died after injuries sustained in what law enforcement described as “car surfing.” Those were the details broadly shared with the media.
And reporting those details was a journalistic failure.
It was a failure because as we learned last Wednesday and as you can read in this edition of The Citizen, Kyle was not standing on the top of a vehicle recklessly seeking some inconceivable thrills. The events that occurred that night, at least according to police, were much more benign but nonetheless tragic.
As was pointed out by several people, the term “car surfing” conveys so much more than what actually happened, and it was conveyed far beyond our small community.
It should have not have happened. I should have clarified those details the day the press releases started pouring out.
Rather than ask about the sequence of events, I asked for specifics (several details, including age, had been inaccurately reported) and I tried to nail down confirmation on the young man’s identity because I already knew who he was — at least his name.
I wanted to do the story right. I wanted to share who this kid was, and I remember telling a local “the headline in the Denver Post and every other newspaper will read ‘Teen dies car surfing.’ That is not what the headline will read in this paper.”
In that effort, I failed to ask “what actually happened?”
It could be stated those were the details provided by credible sources at the time. It also could be noted that few people, if anyone, questioned those sources regarding what actually happened that night. Neither of those statements are valid excuses.
Failing to question and prod sources relegates us to nothing more than stenographers. More importantly, it fails to execute the most fundamental purpose of our profession, which is to inform readers.
In my opinion, that responsibility is only heightened in tragic circumstances — when loved ones are grieving.
The other point is one I have a hard time addressing, because few things irritate me more than the human tendency to extricate ourselves from responsibility by pointing to others who made the same mistake.
I can safely say that excuse would not fly if a source said it to me while reporting a story, any story. Frankly, I don’t care if I’m joined by others.
I hold myself to the highest standard, especially when it comes to subjects that cut so deeply in my community. This is my home.
Everyone makes mistakes, however, journalists have a hard time swallowing them because each mistake slowly chips away at our credibility. Few things matter more than our credibility.
However, I’ve never been one to let a mistake eat at me for an extended period of time. I try to abide by the philosophy of: Learn the lesson and make damn sure you don’t forget it.
I won’t be forgetting this one.
Ryan Hoffman is editor of The Citizen Telegram. You can reach him at 970-685-2103 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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