Many journalism ethics decisions are difficult. This one is not: If you don’t know whether the family knows of a newsworthy death, you should wait to report it.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Edinson Vólquez pitched Game One of the World Series last night, shortly after his father’s death. Reports conflicted initially on whether the pitcher learned of Daniel Volquez’s death in the Dominican Republic before the game, as reported by ESPN, citing an unnamed source, or was not told of the death until after he left the game after six strong innings, as Fox reported on its telecast.
The Royals said Vólquez’s wife called General Manager Dayton Moore with the tragic news shortly before the game and asked that he not be told until he was finished pitching.
News organizations reported the death while Vólquez was pitching, apparently before he knew the news. I think that was the wrong ethical decision.
A fundamental principle of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (and every journalism ethics code that I know of) is “minimize harm.”
Extreme circumstances could justify disclosing a person’s death before the family knows: In the shooting of a Virginia murderer who had been identified because he was still at large and a threat to the public, the news of his death was urgent and important. Perhaps a few public figures are so important that their deaths need to be reported immediately. In those cases, you hope someone is telling the family quickly, so they don’t learn from media reports. But you have to report.
Cases that justify immediate reporting, without concern for whether the family knows, are rare. As much as I care about this World Series (more on that later), I didn’t need or want to know this news before the man’s son knew it. Being first with this story didn’t mean you won a journalistic race. It meant you raced past a journalistic principle
The ESPN report cited a “family source,” and I don’t know whether the report was right or whether the Royals’ account was right. But being first with this story doesn’t meet my standards for using unnamed sources, so I can’t justify the decision, even though ESPN apparently thought Vólquez knew the news.
I welcome other perspectives. I understand, and teach, the urge to be first with a story. But that’s actually less important than such journalistic principles as accuracy, verification and minimizing harm.
I don’t think this situation was compelling enough to risk the cruelty of letting a family member learn this news from news reports (or fans shouting sympathetic encouragement after they’ve read news reports).
The sad news of a loved one’s death should come in a private setting from a family member, friend, clergy member, law enforcement officer or military casualty assistance officer. Only in extraordinary cases should that news from news reports or tweets.
I hope Vólquez was so focused on pitching this game that he missed all the news that was flying about on social and other media, and got a chance to hear the news privately and start his grieving after he left the game. That’s how I learned of my father’s death, and that’s how every journalist who reported this story prematurely would want to learn of a loved one’s death.
Tweets about Daniel Vólquez’s death
Our @Enrique_Rojas1 reporting that Edinson Volquez learned about his father’s death on the way to the ballpark today.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) October 28, 2015
The Royals are saying that Edinson Volquez does not know about his father’s reported death.
— Barry Svrluga (@barrysvrluga) October 28, 2015
Just to be clear: The Royals are saying Volquez doesn’t know about his father’s reported death. @Enrique_Rojas1 is reporting otherwise.
— Barry Svrluga (@barrysvrluga) October 28, 2015
Broadcast generally on in clubhouse. Conflicting reports on whether Volquez knows. We are not taking chance he would find out through us.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) October 28, 2015
I’m told Fox is being respectful on reporting Volquez on the game broadcast at the request of the Royals.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) October 28, 2015
— Garrett Haake (@GarrettHaake) October 28, 2015
— Bleacher Report (@BR_MLB) October 28, 2015
An earlier post on early reporting of deaths
More about the Royals
The New York Yankees are my favorite baseball team, but the Royals are my second-favorite. I was a season-ticket-holder from 1986 to 1991 and attended Game Two of the 1985 World Series. And I love my sons way more than I love the Yankees, so I’ve enjoyed their excitement about the Royals’ runs to the World Series this year and last year as much as any year the Yankees have played.
I blog about baseball on Hated Yankees (and will be blogging about this World Series there). But here, where I usually blog about journalism, I will settle for two short statements about the Royals:
- I join many other baseball fans and Royals fans in offering deepest sympathy for Edinson Vólquez.
- Man, what a game! I’m glad the Royals won.