This feedback forum is designed to give readers a way to voice criticisms and compliments or ask questions about The Californian’s news coverage. Your questions may be edited for space and clarity.
Reader: Wow, what a horrible thing to (report). You could have left out that (newly sworn-in Bakersfield City Councilman Jeff Tkac) died by suicide. A simple ‘he has passed away and the family would like privacy for now’ (would have sufficed). No foul play was involved so it’s not a fact the public needs to know.
... (Reporting Tkac’s death as a suicide) gives the community the opportunity to scrutinize him, passing judgment and speculating about why he did what he did. When none of that is important or relevant to their lives or their relationship to him as a council member.
— Laura Jean
Price: Everyone I know who knew Jeff Tkac is still stunned at his passing. It’s hard to fathom how a bright, successful family man who seemed to exude such a genuine, perpetual warmth could take his own life.
Suicide bears a stigma that I don’t know how we might erase, other than by allowing it into the conversation, difficult and intrusive as it might sometimes seem. Only by talking about it, and familiarizing ourselves with its possible warning signs, can we recognize potential crisis situations in the people we care about. (The mental health and media consortium TEAM Up would add: “Often, even family and friends do not recognize the warning signs or the underlying mental health problems leading to a suicide.” So it’s tough enough already.)
As for the question at hand: Somewhere, somehow a fallacy took root in the public consciousness that reporting suicide went against the policies of responsible media organizations. The fact is, ignoring the circumstances of a newsmaker’s death isn’t anyone’s policy, and hasn’t been for decades. With good reason.
Suicides, in and of themselves, do not qualify as news. Dozens of people die in Kern County every week, but their stories don’t make the pages of this newspaper unless they’re prominent in the community, victims of a crime or somehow otherwise newsworthy. And that applies to suicides.
We reported the death of Jai Bornstein, the young transgender woman who was in the news this week, as a suicide because media had already noted her family’s concern over her disappearance and widespread search efforts had been underway. There was no logical way to report the matter’s tragic resolution without revealing that she had killed herself. We don’t know if issues related to her trans status were factors in her suicide, but we can hope nonetheless that some understanding of those issues will have come of it.
In the case of Tkac, who had attended his first full city council meeting just the night before, police reported the incident as an apparent suicide, and, though they did not give Tkac’s name, other sources confirmed it. In any case, news of his suicide had already spread far and wide through social media.
Laura, you write that our reporting Tkac’s death as a suicide encourages people to speculate about why he did it. There’s probably nothing any of us can do about that, but I do know that withholding his cause of death would have prompted even more speculation. In the absence of facts, people create their own truth, exchanging theories, gossip and conjecture.
You say there was no foul play in this case. How do you know that? Because investigators declared it an apparent suicide and we reported it as such. Had we not, you can bet people would have speculated about the possibility.
Price: As some of you may have read in her recent column, Debra Saunders, formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle, has taken a job as the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Washington correspondent, ending her long run as the most conservative woman in the Bay Area (or so it must have seemed to her).
She will apparently continue to write a column, but her move got me wondering about contingency plans. Should we start considering a new conservative voice? Many readers have been of the opinion that we needed a new conservative voice anyway, even with Saunders.
So we’re adding two — two of the best around.
One is George Will of the Washington Post, dean of the nation’s conservative columnists, who writes about politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1977, and he starts today.
The other is Charles Krauthammer, who is also a Fox News commentator and a nightly regular on “Special Report with Bret Baier.” He received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1987. We’ll begin publishing him in the next few days.
Reader: As an avid follower of national and international news, I was very interested in the proposed changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics. However, as I read The Californian’s coverage, I was hard pressed to find out much about the potential changes in question.
As I read the front page and subsequent coverage and commentary, I found the following descriptions: “gutting,” “public relations disaster,” “gutting,” “curtail the independence,” “curbing,” “curtail,” “weakening,” “change,” “some reforms,” “gut ethics enforcement,” “weakening,” “some changes,” and “proposed changes” without any information about what those proposed changes might be. Isn’t it the responsibility of a news organization to report the content of the news in addition to people’s reaction/characterization of it?
It wasn’t until I came to the USA Today insert (after several paragraphs of similar characterizations) that I discovered the changes in question included “subject[ing] the watchdog to oversight by the … House Ethics Committee and bar the ethics body from investigating anonymous complaints … [and] to bar the ethics agency from reviewing potential criminal acts … [and] hand over those complaints to the House Ethics Committee or law enforcement.”
These changes may indeed be accurately characterized by the terms quoted above. But please, provide us with the context to draw some of our own conclusions.
— John Tarjan
Price: We try as best we can to make different articles that cover the same topic supplement each other rather than repeat information, often by selecting an analysis or reaction article to pair with a straight news story. USA Today’s story contained details about the committee’s function and The Sacramento Bee story we published, which focused on the perspective of our congressman, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, focused on the machinations behind the House vote. We included a “refer” that directed readers from the Bee story to the USA Today story eight pages back. I suppose that “refer” could have better described what was different about the latter article.
Reader: Embedding USA Today content in TBC says a lot about your left leanings. We are also subjected to (columnists) Bob Franken and now Danny Morrison. His rant about “the best president ever” leaves no doubt about his mindset. Most of his stuff should be on the opinion page!
— Louis Boll
Price: I keep hearing that USA Today leans left, but a 2014 Pew study, “Political Polarization & Media Habits,” puts the newspaper almost dead-center on the ideological spectrum, a whisker to the left of the conservative Wall Street Journal, based on the political proclivities of various newspapers’ audiences.
As for Danny Morrison: Columns are, by definition, opinion articles, so we don’t need to move Morrison or Herb Benham or any of our local columnists back to the Opinion section. Readers should know that the opinions expressed are the columnist’s own and not “news” that pretends to offer multiple perspectives.
By the way, we’re adding another local columnist next week who is considerably more conservative than Morrison. We might even put the two of them on the same page. Details later.
Reader: You have to be amazed that reporter Harold Pierce is amazed that, despite a drop in Kern County’s teen birth rates, we are still number one (“Kern birth rates down; still lead state,” Jan. 4). Pierce is relatively new to aggressively fanatical Christian Kern County. ... (Local) politicos need teen pregnancy to thrive. It is the fuel for our great law enforcement and incarceration industry.
So, Mr. Pierce, your piece of info is not news, it is our expectation, our cottage industry, without which we would be just another liberal California city.
— Panfilo Fuentes
Price: I can say with complete certainty, having talked to Harold before he wrote this story, that he was not amazed by the latest county statistics on teen pregnancy. Not even slightly. Having written about STDs, state mandated sex ed and related subjects, he’s well aware that we have a big problem here in Kern County.
I quote him directly: “I don’t amaze easily.”
Reader: Wow. If your writing is this crisp, I must buy your book. I learned so much (in “The Crystal Palace at 20: As much personality as the man who created it,” Dec. 18) that was interesting and new, I had to re-read almost every paragraph — if not to soak in the words, but to see how you constructed the sentences.
Never again will I tell my family that Buck won that car from Elvis in a poker game. Back in 1968, as I rode my bike home from Emerson Junior High, I would stop behind the doughnut shop on Chester Avenue and Fourth Street to admire that exotic Excalibur sports car with the exhaust pipes coming out the left side. Had I known it was Buck’s parked behind the old KUZZ AM 970 radio station, I would have reached out and touched it — not because it was his, but because Buck had known Ringo Starr, and had shaken his hand. Your description of Buck being His Honor? You don’t need to submit your column to editors. Well done!
— Matt Jetson
Price: Jennifer Self, who edited my article on the anniversary of Buck Owens’ dinner house and museum, would beg to disagree with you on that last point, but thank you.
Robert Price and The Californian welcome your comments and suggestions. To offer your input by phone, please call 395-7649 and leave your comments in a voice-mail message or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and phone number. Phone numbers and addresses won’t be published.