Missing the mark of compassion

Published 9:21 pm Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Missing the mark of compassion

By R.E. Spears III


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Strip away the bells and whistles and what we do at this newspaper is to tell stories about people. When we do it well, the words simply tell those stories, fading into the background so readers can focus on the objects of those stories. When we do it poorly, the words themselves can become the story, overshadowing and even detracting from the biographies and memoirs we try to present.

A story in Tuesday’s edition of the Suffolk News-Herald did the latter, and people were hurt in the process. I want to personally apologize here to the family of Aaron L. Hunter for that.

Nearly all of Tuesday’s story about the 23-year-old former Lakeland High School student who was Suffolk’s most recent murder victim was extremely positive. Family and friends described Hunter to us as “cool-headed” and “thoughtful,” and a friend said he was “one of the happiest people you ever met.” He loved gospel and rap music, and he had been a member of Lakeland’s drum corps when he was a student there.

But a reference at the top of the story to Hunter having been shot last year and having been “lucky” to have survived that shooting and then stating that his “luck ran out” when he was shot on Friday came across to many as flippant and crass, and many readers found the lede so distasteful as to have overshadowed the positive story that followed about Hunter.

I get that. When I read the story prior to publication on Monday, I saw the reference to Hunter’s luck running out as a figure of speech that suggested the problems the young man had faced. Those problems were evident in his sister’s ensuing explanation of his health problems and his efforts to be placed on disability.

Having fielded numerous telephone calls, emails, Facebook messages and visits on Tuesday, including a visit from his mother, I now recognize that those close to Hunter — and perhaps even many casual readers — would have seen things differently. Again, I am sorry for that callousness, however unintentional.

Most readers of this newspaper do not know that how close to this kind of tragedy I am. My wife’s son was murdered in a senseless robbery 17 years ago. I see the pain on her face whenever she thinks of him. She cried about it even as I described to her on Tuesday the situation surrounding this story about Aaron Hunter. “Remember that this woman is dealing with the fact that she’ll never be able to hold her son again,” she said of Mrs. Hunter.

I confess that, as a journalist who has written about and edited stories about many murders in my 30-year career, my tendency is toward a certain hardness about the subject. If I allowed myself to dwell on the senselessness of it all, I’d be overwhelmed each time some mother was forced to reckon with the reality of having to bury a child. But then I recall the suffering my wife feels, even 17 years later.

Perhaps that roughness was part of why I didn’t recognize the pain that would be caused by the lede in Tuesday’s story. Whether or not that’s true doesn’t change the fact that we caused further, unnecessary pain to a family that was already hurting.

I cannot undo the damage that was done, but I can make sure that this family — along with the other readers of the Suffolk News-Herald — knows that I recognize we failed them and knows that we will take this as a lesson for the future.

Every person whose story appears on the pages of this newspaper deserves fair and compassionate treatment. I am sorry we failed to provide such treatment in this case.