When 12-year-old Tarren Garcia missed his Bull Valley school bus last week but noticed a human skull lying in the grass near the stop, he stumbled into the kind of macabre mystery that has kept Hardy Boys readers enthralled for decades. Who would not recognize it immediately as an intriguing news story?
But news stories, especially those being produced before the mystery is solved, have to be handled more delicately than adolescent fiction. Add the prospect of a full-color photograph, and you have an interesting discussion among newsroom editors.
Since our first instincts always favor publication, we began our coverage plan with the expectation that we would accompany the story of this discovery with a picture of the skull lying in his yard taken by Tarren's mother. In fact, at first, we carried the picture with the story on our website and we began preparing front pages for our Fox Valley zones that included it.
But soon, other instincts also came into play. One involves what we sometimes call the breakfast test, wherein we ask ourselves to make sure viewing a particular image at the morning table will not ruin a reader's breakfast. For most of us, this picture easily passed that test. The skull was clean of human tissue and bore no actual resemblance to a living human being. If anything, it resembled the head of a party-store skeleton that can be found on almost any suburban lawn during Halloween -- which, for me personally, turned out to be more of a problem than the question of whether readers would be grossed out.
But before either of those issues arose, another editor asked a more fundamental question: How would any of us feel if we ran that photo and then in a day or a week or two, we found out it was a relative or friend?
It would not be accurate to say that question stopped us in our tracks. We do, after all, deal almost daily with events that are uncomfortable for victims or families of victims to see or read. But it deepened our thinking. We had eventually to come to grips with the question of why -- that is, to what purpose -- would we display this picture? What aspect of this potentially very serious mystery would be advanced if people saw it? Editor John Lampinen addressed that question directly in a note making the final determination to pull the picture off the website and, for the moment at least, not use it in print.
"I think people know what a skull looks like," Lampinen wrote. If we'd shown pictures of the kind of neighborhood these skulls turned up in, he added, we could at least provide "a sense for just how bizarre this find is," but that was not what this picture showed.
"I do think that some people will find it distasteful ... I have run into people who remember a mistake we -- or another newspaper -- made in an obituary 25 years later. People never forget these things," he concluded.
And with that, we decided to wait.
Since then, the mystery has taken an interesting turn -- if not particularly the stuff of compelling fiction. This week scientists determined the skull, and a companion found along with it later, appear to be anatomical lab specimens. Foul play does not seem likely -- at least beyond the possibility of an adolescent prank -- nor are we likely ever to know the humans to whom the skulls belonged. So, we've relaxed our concerns and the original picture is carried with the most recent story on our website. It may add a little bit to understanding the full nature of this story for some readers, but more importantly, it should not cause distress for any.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor for the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.