Uncategorized | 12:31 am | April 18, 2011 | By Vivian Yee

For Our Readers: Covering a tragedy

This is the third installment of “For Our Readers,” an online column written by the editors of News for the benefit of, well, our readers. Exploring issues of campus and city journalism, the column will aim to shed light on the decisions we make every night at 202 York St., answer your questions about our coverage and respond to reader concerns about accuracy and fairness. Read last week’s column about our coverage of the Title IX investigation here. Submit questions, concerns and ideas for future columns to editor@yaledailynews.com.

Amid the hubbub of Bulldog Days’ beginning and the continuing controversy over the Title IX investigation into Yale, the campus lost a student this past week. Michele Dufault ’11 was the sixth student to die in the past two years. Several of us at the News were her friends or acquaintances; all of us knew people who had been in Saybrook, or the Yale Precision Marching Band, or the physics or astronomy departments, or the Yale Drop Team, with her. In reporting on her death and attending her vigil, we encountered distraught friends everywhere.

The tragedy, like previous campus tragedies, underscored the News’ role as a community paper. The News has had all too much experience writing about death at Yale. But Dufault’s death posed a slightly different challenge, one that we did not handle as a paper whose main role is to serve the community should.

It should come as no surprise that our online exclusive about Dufault posted Wednesday morning immediately attracted many readers and commenters. Most of the commenters expressed grief and sympathy for Dufault’s family; they offered prayers for her parents and for the campus. (“this is shocking, confusing, and just terrible. sending love and prayers to the DuFault family (sic),” user tclady wrote. “It was an honor to know Michele. She was an extraordinarily kind young woman, a talented scientist, and a true and loyal friend. We will miss her,” wrote Inigo_Montoya.)

But for other commenters, the circumstances surrounding the tragedy and Yale’s machine safety procedures were of equal interest. Some users speculated about the kind of machinery that might have caused Dufault’s death, while others questioned Yale’s decision to allow her to work in the machine shop late at night, unsupervised. Our reporters did explore these questions in subsequent stories. Several users on the commenting board, however, turned angrily against this type of speculation. As user Yalie said: “I think it’s worth asking people to consider their comments carefully before posting, as many of the victim’s friends and family might well see them. This is an awful, unfathomable tragedy and I don’t see any need for talking about industrial safety or emphasizing the nature of the accident. There will be a time and place for that, but it is not here and now.”

For the four moderators of yaledailynews.com comments, the question was how much to control the flow of conversation on the story, which has so far gathered 108 comments. At first, our impulse was to stick strictly to the user policy and allow users to post more or less freely. (The user policy stipulates that any comment with “profane, obscene or offensive language,” or that contains an advertisement or other spam, can be deleted. It also prohibits comments that target or otherwise single out Yale Daily News staff.) But we quickly found that in this case, the lines were increasingly fuzzy. After all, as some commenters and readers argued, couldn’t any premature speculation about the nature of Dufault’s death constitute “offensive language”?

We watched the comments carefully, but otherwise, we treated it like any other story — until one commenter, theJackal, wrote that the equipment in the machine shop was “extremely dangerous and only qualified MACHINISTS should be allowed to use them, not girls who want to be ‘scientists’ one day regardless if they took a ‘shop safety’ course.” The user also described in graphic detail what might have happened to Dufault’s body. Although we felt that his comments hinted at misogyny and that his tone was unnecessarily combative, we were unsure at first that they were offensive enough to warrant removal.

We took down his second, overtly misogynistic comment almost right away, but left the first one up as more and more people flagged it and we received several e-mails asking us to remove it. One e-mailer pointed out, rightly, that if we were willing to delete comments that “vaguely mock” individual editors or reporters, then we should be even more vigilant about removing those that disrespect a young woman who had just died in a tragic accident. And a member of the News community who had been Dufault’s friend contacted us, distraught, asking that we remove it.

All of this gave us pause and made us reconsider what we should have recognized all along — that as a community paper, we had a responsibility to help the Yale community as well as report on it. Though we considered the comments discussing machine safety valid and productive — Dufault’s death has already prompted departments across Yale and the country to reevaluate their safety procedures — we realized that our story had also become a space for readers to mourn. Her family and friends may have been reading the story and its accompanying comments. Disrespectful language, however ambiguous, did not have a place next to a story about her death. Fortunately, very few of the subsequent comments raised red flags.

If you disagree with our decisions to leave or remove comments, we encourage you to e-mail us at editor@yaledailynews.com.

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