A couple of minutes ago I read a piece on SI.com headlined SOUTH DAKOTA POLICE CONFIRM THAT ADRIAN PETERSON’S SON HAS DIED. The article, written by Doug Farrar, is terribly sad. As you almost certainly know by now, Peterson—the Minnesota Vikings’ star halfback—was the father of a 2-year-old boy who was killed by the mother’s boyfriend (Peterson and the woman are not together).
To be clear, there is nothing good or lighthearted about this story. It’s 100-percent heartbreaking, and I’m not—by any means—making light. I have two kids, and the idea of losing them … well, it’s unthinkable.
This blog post, however, isn’t specifically about Adrian Peterson or his son. It’s about journalism—and the thin-yet-important line that I believe Farrar (a man I don’t know) tiptoed across. At the end of his (excellent, professional) news story on the tragedy, Farrar wrapped things up by writing, “All of us at Sports Illustrated send out thoughts and condolences to Peterson and his family.”
As a human, I get this.
As a journalist, I hate this.
Clearly, Farrar’s intentions are 100-percent decent. This is not—in any way—a ripping of him, or his decency. However, from a journalistic viewpoint, including this sentiment is inappropriate. We are reporters. We report. That’s our job, and whether you’re on the crime beat or the cinematic beat or the football beat, your job (unless you’re a columnist) is to gather the facts, then present them. Period. If you do this well, and properly, people will send their own thoughts and prayers. They’ll be saddened and heartbroken and devastated—because you, the messenger, explained what happened.
Once a journalist (in print) begins to express his viewpoints—or even his empathy—something is lost. I’m not certain what that is—credibility? Objectiveness? A third wall? Again, I’m not sure. But when a reporter is asked to cover, say, a funeral, he/she cannot hug the family members. When a reporter covers, oh, the Grammy’s, he/she can’t wrap up a news piece by writing, “Here at the New York Times—well, we’re just thrilled for Taylor Swift.” We don’t root for wins or bemoan loses. We don’t cover wars and express hope that America comes out on top. We don’t place ourselves in obituaries—we talk to people, and allow them to emote.
I am, truly, saddened over what happened to Adrian Peterson’s son. It’s the worst of the worst of the worst. And, as a blogger, I can freely write that.
If you’re covering the story from a news angle, though, you can’t.
You just can’t.