Thin line between news gathering and insensitivity

Posted8/26/2012 5:00 AM

The media alert did not equivocate.

"On Thursday, August 23, Megan's funeral will be held at St. Michael Catholic Church in Wheaton. While the family is grateful to the media for their help in the search for a suspect, they have requested that family and friends only be allowed in the church. A Funeral Mass is sacred in their faith tradition and it is important to the Bokens that the sanctity of the occasion be maintained and uninterrupted.

"While St. Michael has welcomed media into the church on other occasions, the Boken funeral is a private event and St. Michael joins the Boken family in asking that their privacy be respected on August 23." The media also was directed to an unobtrusive spot outside St. Michael church to take photos.

When tragedy strikes, it is always a difficult balancing act to fulfill our obligation to our readers while showing care and compassion for the victims. Wheaton native Megan Boken, her family and friends were unfairly thrust into the national limelight Aug. 18 when she was shot to death in broad daylight in a nice neighborhood of St. Louis, a short distance from where she lived when she was a student and volleyball star at St. Louis University.

As my columnist colleague Jim Slusher pointed out the other day, it is difficult for even the most seasoned newspaper veteran to approach those closest to the victim of a tragedy and ask them to bare their souls for publication. And, as he eloquently put it, "the result, when survivors are willing and able to crack open the window of their heartbreak, closes the distance between the reading and the suffering. It permits people who are no longer with us to be understood not in death but in life."

That's why there is value in our covering a funeral. It is one of the best opportunities, perhaps the only one, to celebrate the person's life rather than wallow in his or her death. There will be many more stories on the latter, unfortunately, as the men accused of killing Megan during a robbery attempt are tried.

Yet, it's easy to see how friends and family view their church as a sanctuary, literally and figuratively. Even though it's always been our practice to tell our reporters to unobtrusively take notes and not talk to anyone, I can see where some view this an intrusion.

In recent years, we often have approached the family or funeral home in advance to see if we're welcome under those conditions. When we're told "no," we take the family's wishes under careful consideration and often, as in this case, don't go.

Even then, there can be some meaningful middle ground. As we have done before, in other funerals we've been asked to skip, we asked St. Michael's pastor, Rev. Dan Hoehn, if he would share what he had to say during the ceremony. He spoke extemporaneously, but graciously agreed to write a summary of his homily at Megan's funeral Mass. We were able to run it in full online and in our Cook, DuPage and Lake County editions.

Perhaps our coverage would have been a little more complete had we ignored the family's wishes and, as one other media outlet apparently did, covered the funeral anyway. It doesn't seem worth the insensitivity we'd show.

It's a small, small thing compared to the enormity of what the Bokens and their friends are dealing with now, but I feel better, as I believe others do around here, knowing that a decision to provide less coverage means so much more in the grand scheme of things.

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