NOTHING TROUBLES most readers as much as stories about violence against children.
Whether it is news about recently released sex offenders implicated in killings or articles about child abuse, the topic is so traumatizing to some readers that they might feel overwhelmed or unable to read the articles at all.
Stories about the continuing murder trial of two Mexican immigrants charged in the grisly killings of three children, ages 10, 9 and 8, last year in Northwest Baltimore, have been especially difficult for readers.
The Sun's coverage of the trial, which began in June and is expected to continue through August, produced this question several weeks ago from reader M. Miklochik: "Is it necessary to mention in every article that these children were almost decapitated? Everyone knows that these poor children died a horrendous, violent death. Every time you repeat that they were nearly beheaded, it takes away a little more of their dignity."
How the newspaper reports the details of material that is horrible but central to a story is a daily challenge for reporters and editors. And although reporters are trained to be detached observers, the potential to become emotionally drained by daily exposure to such terrible details cannot be overestimated.
Sun staffers Julie Bykowicz and Peter Hermann walk a fine line every day in, respectively, the reporting and editing of articles about this trial. While trying to avoid presenting the most graphic details of the killings and the crime scene, they must ensure that readers receive an accurate sense of the evidence, along with reports of daily testimony.
Each article also must contain a recapitulation paragraph that summarizes the crime, the charges and the current status of the trial. Because some readers might be picking up the story for the first time, each article must include these essential details to provide context.
Assistant city editor Hermann, a former Sun police reporter and foreign correspondent based in the Middle East, said: "Readers need some images to fully understand the horror that is, unfortunately, part of real life. But there are ways to do this without being overly graphic, such as finding words and images that people can relate to and understand."
In cases involving children, this is even more imperative.
The July 28 article, "Jurors sob at crime scene video of 3 slain children; Footage is so disturbing that court ends early," has been the most demanding single story. The straightforward headline alerts readers to the potent nature of what was to follow.
Despite objections from the defense attorneys, Circuit Judge Thomas Ward ruled that jurors could see the video of the crime scene that was shot by police just hours after the children's bodies were discovered by their parents.
Reporter Bykowicz's article led the reader through the crime scene in the same way prosecutors led the jurors through the crime scene. The difference was that Bykowicz told the story not by describing the gory evidence but by recounting how the jury reacted to it. The article also described how the video was especially shocking for those in the courtroom because the screening had followed days of clinical and somewhat tedious testimony.
Bykowicz wrote: "Some jurors audibly gasped at what they saw next. Several covered their mouths. Some averted their eyes. Many wept."
The playing of the video occurred on an already emotional day, Bykowicz recalled last week.
"It happened to be the particular day that I really got to know the slain children," she said. "An hourlong conversation over lunch with one of their teachers gave me a vivid picture of the kids that I, unfortunately, or perhaps not, carried with me into the courtroom that afternoon."
Bykowicz has reported on a number of murder trials and covered an execution last year, but she was unprepared for the effect the video would have on her.
"I can look at my largely incoherent notes from the end of the video and realize how I really struggled to keep my composure," Bykowicz said. "I left the courthouse quickly and stood at the corner of Calvert and Fayette, letting the tears flow for a good 15 minutes. It took me even longer to get back to the state of mind where I could write the story."
It is testament to Bykowicz's professionalism - and that of Sun photographer Chiaki Kawajiri - that they produced such a coherent package of stories and photos despite being deeply affected by what they saw.
Bykowicz also turned the interview with one of the slain children's teachers into a compelling, front-page article published Aug. 1. The article described how Tasha Gardner has regularly attended the trial as a tribute to the children and in an effort to understand what happened.
Reactions reflected the emotional extremes that the story has produced in readers.
"What happened to those children was tragic," said Tim Dotterweich. "I fail to see the need to revisit a teacher's anguish twice."
But Glenn Weber wrote: "I just want to say that this teacher is a really gifted person and I bet she is a wonderful teacher. Thank you for a great story."
Bykowicz will be back in the courtroom tomorrow.
Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.