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SOUND OFF: We're making tough calls every day

Reader: My first awareness of mass shootings was in 1966 when one occurred from the University of Texas Tower. The next was of a cluster of workplace shootings started among federal employees in the mid-'80s with what is described in the slang as “going postal.” In 1999, Columbine occurred, which brought a fresh shock because of the age of the perpetrators but even more because they stalked and killed on a school campus. This appears to have triggered too, too many copycat crimes that have added a new stress level for both parents and students. The Las Vegas concert shooting raised this anxiety by targeting people with little in common besides an appreciation for a type of music. Mass shootings have a significant impact on people's mental health and perceptions of safety. Because of no agreement on a definition, it isn’t possible to be precise on frequency but one source counted 225 as of May 28 so far for this year.

It has become very disheartening to watch the resumed stream of mass shootings that have been occurring recently after a brief lull during the initial COVID-19 outbreak. These cowardly acts by anti-social armed individuals undoubtedly are driven by underlying psychological forces. Our federal government refuses to attempt to identify these factors by funding research to start to analyze their causes and reduce their occurrence, which is very frustrating. Adding to the controversy are the two sides in the culture wars who seek to exploit these tragedies for their own purposes. Initially, the media had printed explanations for the violent behavior that in some minds might be viewed as a justification.

One theory about a partial motivation for these tragedies has been the attention these acts draw. The media have certainly appeared to exploit the crimes, the victims and their families for purposes that do not shed any new light on the tragedy. One of the laws of psychology is that certain responses will reinforce a behavior and increase the likelihood the behavior will reoccur. The intention of the person providing the reinforcing response may not matter; the perception of the subject does.

The Californian is still a powerful voice in our community. Having a mention or quote is usually seen as positive. Getting a picture in is usually even better unless it relates to some type of criminal behavior. Journalistic standards allow your paper to also withhold the names of sexual assault survivors and I believe you also voluntarily don’t publish information identifying most suicides. If the paper gains access to a suicide note, I also assume in most circumstances you don’t publish the contents. Your decisions in these matters are a reflection of community standards and values upon which the paper has a large influence. The paper has discretion in what it does and doesn’t print.

The Californian has demonstrated a lack of sensitivity to this discretion in its coverage of the tragic San Jose shooting by publishing the name and picture of a person it identifies as responsible for this outrage thereby giving the person 15 minutes of fame. Possibly you are also conditioning other unstable people to expect this type of attention and unintentionally encouraging their acts. For myself, I see no value in identifying by word or picture an individual that in some twisted minds might glorify and encourage despicable crimes. I didn’t want to trust my memory so I checked your e-editions and couldn’t find even one picture of any of the victims. This omission may have been more for space (economic) considerations rather than a desire to shield family members from trauma.

Then in a story about a horrific prison murder, you included a picture of the alleged perpetrator from an earlier local court appearance for no reason discernible to me other than his willingness to disfigure his face for shock value and your desire to publicize it. These may only be marginal changes in your standards but I feel they are significant.

I’m not going to threaten to drop my subscription over this issue but I would appreciate your editorial board reviewing your standards and speaking only for myself, I would request you to exclude or at least greatly minimize any mention of the alleged perpetrators in mass shootings or other crimes where your paper might be unintentionally reinforcing destructive behavior.

— Mic Hall

Peterson: Mic, thank you for your thoughtful, albeit long, letter. You bring up many perfectly good questions — questions for which entire books have been written and entire journalism classes have been taught. I share that as a way to say I can't answer every point here today. Some of your points really need lengthy discussions and explanations.

But here's a start.

Every single day, editors and reporters are faced with myriad decisions on how to present news and information to readers. Of the many stories we might cover on a given day, which ones can we get to, given our time and resources? Of the hundreds of news stories available from our services providing state, national and international news, which ones will make print and which ones will appear at Bakersfield.com? I can tell you these discussions happen throughout the day and we strive to make the best choices every time.

Much of your letter focuses on mass shootings. You're right; different people define that differently. Our Associated Press Stylebook, which we follow, notes that "a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University defines mass killings as four or more dead, not including the shooter." So that's how you will see it appear in AP stories.

I am going to respectfully disagree with you that publishing the name and photo of the suspect in the tragic San Jose shooting "demonstrated a lack of sensitivity to this discretion" to choose what to print. Our job, as painful as it may be to us or to our readers, is to inform. That's what we did by publishing this story and the suspect's name.

Here's where I will agree with you: Given the immensity of this shooting, and that it happened in California, I wish we had published all the photos of the victims. And yes, not doing so was due to space limitations.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, Valley Transportation Authority officials identified the workers who were killed as Paul Delacruz Megia, 42; Tapdej Singh, 36; Adrian Belleza, 29; Jose Dejesus Hernandez III, 35; Timothy Michel Romo, 49; Michael Joseph Rudometkin, 40; Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, 63; Lars Kepler Lane, 63; and Alex Ward Fritch, 49.

All tragically killed.

And here's where I will disagree with you, Mic: I really don't believe we are "exploiting" crimes. I won't speak for other media, but I don't see evidence of that here at The Californian.

You also, Mic, bring up the case of the prison murder. The suspect in this case has made what most of us would consider unusual changes to his appearance, and we published the photo, taken in an earlier court hearing in Kern County, that shows those changes.

Which brings us to the definition of news (which, by the way, there are several). Just a quick internet search shows definitions that include anywhere from seven to 12 main elements. Here are some generally accepted examples of what makes something newsworthy: proximity, prominence, timeliness, oddity or difference, consequence, emotion, conflict, human interest and extremes.

We look at news through these lenses.

•••

Reader: Bob (Price), A lot of respect for you and a very tragic story about the Butterworths ("She came so close, and then fentanyl," June 6). I really don't think it was necessary nor a good idea to write how to take the drug. Sure, curious kids/teens/people can discover it many other ways but I just don't think they should pick up The Californian to read the how-to instructions. Wasn't really relevant to the story itself.

Honestly, I was a bit shocked to read that. I know it's too late for the printed paper but I would hope that you re-think it and edit that part out for the online story.

— Dave Plivelich

Peterson: My colleague Bob responds:

"Hi Dave. Thanks for reading the story. I will have to disagree with you on your one complaint.

"First, I had no idea people were smoking these pills. I didn’t even know you could do that. People should be informed of that possibility. This might explain that odd smell some parents have reported. If one life is saved because a parent knew to look for that sign, it was worth it.

"Second, I had one mother in my ... TV series tell me she found foil with burn marks on it and didn’t know what it was. Now, sadly, she does. Now everyone who reads my story will know too. Maybe that will save a life.

"Third, no drug addict is going to copy down my instructions so they can get high. If they know how and where to obtain pills, and already have the inclination to do so, they know how to ingest them for maximum effect. If they don’t, a friend will show them.

"Fourth, describing the process helps people visualize the problem, brings it home in ways just saying “she smoked a pill” does not. I’m going for impact so people really understand the depth of the problem.

"You say you were shocked; that was my intent. We as a community won’t act to stop this problem until we are emotionally invested: heartbroken, angry and, yes, shocked."

My response: Bob is spot-on.

•••

Reader: I hope you are going to publish your section on which school the graduating seniors are going to. I do so enjoy that every year!

— Peggy W. Miller, Bakersfield

Peterson: This year, through several ads in the newspaper and also at Bakersfield.com, we have invited graduating high school seniors to submit their photo and answers to a few questions. Those received via the online submission form available at Bakersfield.com by the 5 p.m. Monday deadline will be printed June 19.

•••

Reader: Why was there a really nice article about a local author and his very interesting sounding book that isn’t available anywhere? I have been searching for John Ashe’s book, “The 509th Bomb Wing Veterans Association,” at every site I can think of, including a general Google search, and can’t find it anywhere! Is there someplace special where this book can be ordered/purchased?

Thank you for your time and consideration.

— Janice French, Bakersfield

Peterson: Thanks for your question, Janice. We printed Tehachapi News reporter Darla A. Baker's story, "Local Vietnam veteran John Ashe publishes memoir," in The Californian because we knew its readers would be interested, too. Baker included this information in her April 25 story, worth repeating here: "Published in December, 'The 509th Bomb Wing Veterans Association' is available on Lulu.com and is available in hardback only."

I double-checked this week, and the book still shows as available. Hope that helps!

•••

Reader: Thank you TBC, for continuing to offer Leonard Pitts' opinion columns occasionally. Heck, today (June 7), even on the same day as airhead Rich Lowry. Certain voices need to be heard. The future remains in our hands. Until it doesn't.

Wake up y'all. America is in trouble.

And over half the country's Republicans believe Trump won.

— John O'Connell, Bakersfield

Peterson: Some readers like Pitts. Some like Lowry. I doubt many like both, but I have no way to prove that. Hopefully the Opinion section gives everyone a little something to contemplate.

•••

Reader: Are you getting fewer Letters to the Editor? Is that the reason there are day(s) without any? Or do you hold some back for a later date to complement what might happen in the media/news?

— Donna Malahni Jackson, Kernville

Peterson: The volume of letters ebbs and flows.

We do try to run four to five — sometimes even six, depending on the length — at a time, as opposed to just one, which does not work for the way we design the Opinion section. But no, I don’t save them to complement the news. I do like to pair two sides of a debate together when it works, but that depends entirely on what is submitted.

This Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday we had a column of reader letters every day. That's more than usual, and personally, I like it because it's an indicator that readers are engaged with the newspaper. I generally don't run a set of letters on Saturdays, but I had plenty, so I did. Bonus!

Remember, letters to the editor can be up to 250 words, should address one topic and be signed by one writer. The preferred delivery method is our online submission form found at Bakersfield.com/opinion, but we'll take emails at opinion@bakersfield.com, too. Be sure to include your address and phone number; city or town of residence is printed.

Side note: This week, within little more than an hour, I received four copies of the same letter, each purporting to be by a different person whose name was listed. Nope! I caught these four folks, and "their" letters did not print. We in journalism call this practice of making a letter appear it's from just an average person in the community "astroturfing." It's not nice, to say the least.

•••

Reader: Hi Christine! I just got through (May 22) reading the reading the recent letters submitted to the paper since my Sound Off piece ("Sound Off: Let both sides speak," May 15). It sure looked like there was a representative number of letters from both sides being printed for readers to view. That's exactly what I was hoping for and it looks like it is working in that direction. That's all we can ask for from our local paper and it appears to be going that way. Thank you !! :)

— Jerry Poncetta, Bakersfield

Peterson: Yes, Jerry, perhaps you were successful in encouraging people with various perspectives to send a letter. As I've noted before, my job is easier when I receive an equal (or close to it) number of letters on both sides of various debates. Fewer complaints!

Executive Editor Christine Peterson answers your questions and takes your complaints about The Californian’s news coverage in this weekly feedback forum. Questions may be edited for space and clarity. To offer your input by phone, call 661-395-7649 and leave your comments in a voicemail message or email us at soundoff@bakersfield.com. Please include your name and phone number.

Coronavirus Cases widget

  • Positive Cases Among Kern Residents: 158,270

  • Deaths: 1,828

  • Recovered and Presumed Recovered Residents: 150,950 

  • Percentage of all cases that are unvaccinated: 92.04

  • Percentage of all hospitalizations that are unvaccinated: 92.62 Updated: 12/3/2021.

  • Source: Kern County Public Health Services Department