Commentary: Reporting on shocking killing requires sensitivity, dedication to facts

 The call came in the middle of the night, rousing Pat Caldwell from a sound sleep.

Caldwell, a veteran reporter for the Enterprise, jolted awake.

The caller alerted him that a police officer had been shot to death in Nyssa.

That was the way our news team learned of the murder of Joseph “JJ” Johnson, a reserve corporal with the Nyssa Police Department.

For a couple of hours, Caldwell contacted sources. He knew this was a major news event.

At about 3:30 a.m., a local official confirmed only that a police officer had been killed.

But it would be hours before the Enterprise would report the news.

Here’s why.

Caldwell notified me by email what little he knew. I saw his message at 5 a.m. Sunday – less than 12 hours after the crime.

Instantly, I realized we had a big job ahead of us.

By then, Facebook and other social media channels were alive with chatter about the episode.

There was speculation. There were supposed accounts of what happened.

What wasn’t available was verified information.

We began getting readers questioning why we weren’t reporting on the murder.

There was a judgment to make.

The Enterprise could have reported the bare fact that had been confirmed – that an officer had been killed.

We didn’t have confirmation of when.

We had no information on the victim.

We had no information about happened.

Putting out a basic report would have stirred more questions and created more anxiety for the people of Nyssa.

Instead, I made another choice: We’d alert the community that we were aware of major news, that we were developing information, that we wouldn’t report anything that wasn’t verified or from authoritative sources, such as law enforcement.

But we weren’t idle, waiting. Our news team dug out the Nyssa city budget so we could report how many police officers served the city. We went to the state website that lists officers killed in the line of duty to see if Malheur County had ever suffered such a loss. It had – a Nyssa officer in 1957.

Then, at 10:30 a.m., Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe issued a detailed press release. He identified the officer, described the basic outline of what happened and where, and that the hunt was on for the suspected killer. He should be credited for the thoroughness of his statement despite his key role in an active investigation.

The Enterprise published its first story about 15 minutes later, delivering to the community the essential information about this community tragedy.

In the coming days, Caldwell, reporter Steven Mitchell, photographer Angie Sillonis, owner Scotta Callister and I worked tirelessly. We updated our initial story with new information several times throughout that Sunday. Sillonis and Caldwell both attended the informal vigil that evening at the Nyssa Police Department.

The next day, Caldwell was in Ontario where the suspected killer was arrested while Mitchell dug into the details about man’s violent past.

All along the way, we were guided by concern for Johnson’s family, to report nothing that would in any manner add to their grief and misery.

We were guided by the community’s need for credible information, responding with careful but timely reports to keep rumors and speculation at bay.

And we devoted every resource we had to covering Johnson’s service that Saturday in Nyssa, publishing stories and photos throughout the day. We did so because we knew the entire community of Malheur County mourned. We knew many people could not attend the service so took them there with our reports.

As important, we wanted to capture Johnson’s nature, which came through warmly and with humor at the ceremony at Nyssa High School. We chronicled what people said about him, how they showed their respect. We published dozens of photos.

This was time for the Enterprise to do its very best to serve the needs of the community. Our work was undertaken with sensitivity and thoughtfulness, mindful of grace and humility. We hope you found it so. 

Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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