M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

What do you report, and what don’t you report?

with 2 comments

Over at msnbc.com, I’ve written up the gruesome story of a sick person who has coldly and methodically dismembered at least six cats since October and left their remains on a Florida golf course.

The details of the story are horrifying, raising a serious question: How much is enough in a news story?

Here’s what I chose to report:

“Then, on Nov. 17, three more cats were found on the greens. Their paws had been cut off and their stomachs were turned inside out. One of the cats’ body parts were then placed on the fairway as if the killer was trying to reassemble them.”

There are actually much more gruesome details I could have reported. But I held them back.

My goal was to strike a balance between giving enough information to signal the horrifying nature of the story and not giving so much that readers are revulsed and miss the larger point.

Sure, your first impulse on hearing “bloody serial cat killer” is to shudder and browse on. But as the sheriff’s office itself says, this is how Ted Bundy started — by killing small pets. It’s a serious story, and it deserves serious consideration of how you present it.

I don’t know whether I handled it correctly or not. What do you think?

Written by Alex

December 2, 2011 at 2:09 pm

2 Responses

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  1. “What do you think?”


    (But I’m not sure *my* thoughts on this are helpful.)

    — MrJM


    December 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm

  2. Indeed

    I just read your piece on “Waseca School Bomb Plot Foiled Thanks to Witness”
    By M. Alex Johnson

    I thought over all a good report, but I was wondering if you had thought it through. Here was a suspect that had received his inspiration from other past killings and killers names. I point to the names and their personal histories as being the most questionable part of your report.

    Clearly you understood where the suspect got his inspiration, yet you went ahead and repeated the names of past killers again as if we didn’t already know, so that other future suspects can gain their inspiration from them and him now!

    You take a suspect who until now no one had heard of and now that suspect name is headline news. Every detail you can find out about will become common knowledge and talked about for as long as it can be kept in the forefront of the news. Just how many others have you just inspired to do the same thing. Just how many other would be killers have read and heard about a nobody turned into a somebody, and not think “Why not me?”

    Do you want to do another report on a school killing so bad that you need to inspire others to the same?

    It is not just you but all the major news outlets that do this; if I could I would launch a class action suit against all of you as contributing to these killings, I would, as it is I will simply send the suggestion to the dead family members to take whatever action they deem is right. Had the names never been used, there would be no antihero to emulate.

    I can understand the need to report, and to give out details, but this is a case of too much information about an unstable person, who before your and the gen medias identification was a complete unknown.

    All other details do need to come out such as how he was stopped what city he was from, but his personal details just give others ideas on how to get their 15 minutes of fame, really a lot more than that as you also mentioned the past shooters as well. How long has it been since that shooting happened, and now it is again a fresh memory for all, and still you shout out their names as an inspiration to others who might see them as heroes.

    Think about this the next time you sit around with your fellow reporters and ask yours selves are we not part of the problem?


    May 2, 2014 at 12:30 am

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