Clarity, sensitivity and achievement
SEVERAL readers were upset with the Comics page last Thursday. That day, each comic included a tribute to Mitch Hedberg, a stand-up comic who died March 30, 2005. Some of the comics outright illustrated his jokes, others were more subtle. Nowhere was the tribute mentioned, but his name was included in one comic and another included his illustrated likeness. It seemed several readers missed the joke. One went as far as calling the tribute plagiarism.
The cartoonists and editors who planned the tribute didn't expect to have a problem.
"The assumption was that anyone who saw the references and was familiar with Hedberg would recognize them," Editor-in-Chief Michael Slaven wrote in an e-mail. Originally, he explained, they believed that it would seem too sappy, especially for a tribute to a comic like Hedberg, to put a flag saying something like, "The comics page remembers Mitch Hedberg," or "Mitch Hedberg 1968-2005."
"Comic artists, even professional ones, use subtle references all the time," Slaven said.
Yet outright, full-page tributes are rare. MSNBC.com's cartoonist Daryl Cagle, who runs an international index of cartoons, organized a tribute for Peanuts creator Charles Schulz in 2000 when he was president of the National Cartoonists Society. That tribute, which ran in newspapers across the country, typically ran without an explanation, he wrote in an e-mail.
"That said," he wrote, "everyone knows Peanuts, and I've never heard of Mitch Hedberg, so I would have needed an explanation, and tributes like this are not seen frequently, so I suspect that readers would have a hard time knowing what was going on."
This is the third time this school year the Comics page has come under fire. First came a cartoon many considered racist, then another used religious stereotypes to make a pop culture joke. While Thursday's too-subtle tribute was nowhere near as serious as the other two offenses, they all have something in common: poor execution. In each instance, the message was not clear enough for the reader to understand.
"There are no rules for [tributes]," Cagle said. "But cartoonists are in the business of communication, and if many readers don't 'get' a cartoon, I would say the cartoonist is to blame -- or perhaps in this case, the editor who chose not to include an explanation when readers like me wouldn't have understood the tribute."
The editors now agree, and have run a clarification. Next time, let us in on the joke.
On Monday last week, the paper reported the death of Cornell University freshman Matthew Pearlstone ("Cornell student dies while visiting U.Va. over weekend," March 20), and followed up that Friday with results from the medical examiner that said he died of alcohol poisoning. I didn't write about this last week, because I thought the story was clean, sensitive and well done.
Later, I learned from Editor-in-Chief Michael Slaven that several people contacted him who were unhappy with the way the story was reported, some saying the reporter harassed the student with whom Pearlstone was staying.
From what Slaven tells me, the reporter visited the dorm without knowing who this friend was and left when the RA told her to leave before speaking with the friend. To follow up, she placed one phone call, which he returned and politely said he would rather not talk. After that, the reporter sent him one e-mail with her contact information in case he would like to get in touch in the future, Slaven said. Reporters spoke with a fraternity pledge about the night's events and to Pearlstone's family about him, he said.
After receiving complaints, Slaven said, the editors spoke with fraternity leaders and tried to help them understand what had happened, telling them they could contact me if they had any further issues with the story. I have not been contacted.
Reporting on the unexpected death of a young man or woman is one of the most difficult things for reporters young and old to do. It takes a lot of strength and conviction to knock on that door, dial that number and ask for comment.
Sometimes people don't want to talk, and that's fine. Other times, they want the public to know who the person was, what he or she was like and maybe dispel any false conclusions that could be drawn about the person based on how he or she died. To get that full story, reporters try to speak with those who knew the person best; often the key people to speak with are the person's parents and best friends.
It seems to me that the reporter did a respectful and yet thorough job reporting a very difficult story. If you feel differently, I'd like to hear from you.
I want to congratulate The Cavalier Daily for winning 12 awards from the Virginia Press Association -- the only college paper in its category -- and mention that behind those named in the awards are a team of hard-working editors.
Lisa Fleisher is The Cavalier Daily's Ombudsman. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.