Tragic tale has impact on rural editor

By Sharon Johnson, editor, Stigler (Okla.) News-Sentinel

In my 25 years of journalism, nothing has shaken me to the core as much
as a murder-suicide we had in our small community last month.
I was still lying in bed that morning when I received the call from a
friend. Suddenly, I was wide-awake, yet I couldn’t move. I wanted to
throw up.
I called the Sheriff on his personal cell phone. “Please tell me it
wasn’t because of my article,” I said through tears, still lying under
the blankets.
He immediately started assuring me that, of course, it had nothing to do
with the article. In the same breath, however, he said, “Only a couple
of people here at the scene are blaming the article.”
This made me even more ill.
I didn’t want to go to work. I wanted to hide under the covers all day.
I wanted to quit. I no longer wanted to be a part of a job that requires
me to write about other people’s lives.
I personally knew the couple. We live in a small community of less than
3,000, so most people did. I always saw the lady at Wal-Mart and we
shared stories about our grandchildren. She was often pushing at least
one of her little granddaughters in the cart at the time. I’ve never
heard a negative comment about her. She was an extremely sweet person.
The article I referred to was printed in our Wednesday edition, two days
before the shootings. It was short and to the point, based completely on
the explanation and charges filed by the District Attorney.
The man held his wife hostage in their home, struck her in the stomach
and later vandalized the home, taking many of her personal items.
The felony charge of kidnapping that came across our desk that Monday
could not be ignored. It needed an explanation, not just a notation in
the Courthouse News.
I wrote the story myself, not wanting my younger assistant to have to
shoulder that responsibility.
Everything in it was based solely on the D.A.’s report. I was satisfied
that it was beyond legal reproach.
What it was not beyond, however, was reproach from the public.
As you in smaller newspapers know, oftentimes the toes you step on may
well be one of your major advertisers.
Unfortunately, the couple who died was the in-laws of a young man in
charge of advertising for his family’s car dealership here in town as
well as in another community.
He immediately called that Wednesday afternoon. “We’re afraid this is
just going to set him off,” he said to our younger publisher, Linus
Williams, Jr.
He was very angry and upset.
Unfortunately, the killings took place at his home two days later, with
his wife and young daughter present.
The loss of advertising since then is the least of our concerns. Our
hearts ache for the family and our minds cannot comprehend the act of
violence they will live with for the rest of their lives.
Many people in the community have since expressed their belief that the
newspaper article triggered the incident and in fact, put the “bullet in
the gun.”
We have been told that we need to “watch our backsides” and even had
some that said they were praying that something would happen to us.
We received a letter from one of the family members saying that the
newspaper needed to consider the victims in these situations. She went
on to say how she had watched over the years as other families have been
victimized by our newspaper when we ran stories about their loved ones.
Fortunately, we had many others who assured us that what happened would
have most likely happened regardless of whether the article had ran or not.
In fact, many have recognized the fact that if we had NOT ran the
article, we probably would have been accused of withholding information
or “covering up” the story. In all likelihood, we probably would have
been blamed for the shootings if we had NOT ran the article.
After all, this was a well-known, prominent couple and we have all been
accused of withholding information about people with stature in our
To top it ALL off, my personal life has been drug into the mixture. My
husband committed suicide six years ago and I am getting feedback, as
well as one unsigned letter, that wants to know why nothing about my
husband was ever published.
I cannot understand how they can even make the comparison! My husband
killed himself, no one else, and it all happened in one night, not drawn
out over a period of time. It is not our policy to publish stories about
suicides. If the man involved had simply shot and killed himself that
first night, there would have simply been an obituary.
I can’t understand how some people can be so cruel. Do they not know my
heart hurts so much that it fills like it is going to explode? Would
they even care if they knew I had spent hours crying? I doubt it.
The National Newspaper Conference last month could have not come at a
better time for me. It provided me a means of leaving town for a few
days, but more importantly, it allowed me to share my heartache and
fears with those who understand it the best…fellow journalists.
They listened to me, sympathized with me and assured me that I had,
indeed, done the right thing in running the article. “Some people don’t
think we have feelings,” one man told me. “They will never know how much
this hurts you.”
His words could not have been truer.
Journalists do bleed like everyone else. They also hurt like everyone
else. No one but other journalists understand this.
Thank you to all whom made me realize I am not alone.

Reprinted from The Oklahoma Publisher, November 2006


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Last revised: Dec. 1, 2006, 5:10 p.m.