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Columbia Missourian

Response to page 1A placement warrants greater discussion

By Reuben Stern, managing editor
April 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT
Reuben Stern is the Missourian's managing editor.

As managing editor, I have the final say on what goes on the front page each day.

We managing editors try to use the page to help guide you, the reader, to the most important or otherwise interesting stories we’ve collected that day.

News of the shooting that killed 17-year-old Tedarrian Robinson belonged on A1 by most standards.

But did his Life Story several days later deserve the same prominent placement?

Although our stories the previous Thursday and Friday provided detailed coverage of the incident, we hoped the Life Story would answer the big question of how a teenager in Columbia who was known for his sense of humor — and who even received a lifesaving award at age 9 — could end up a shooting victim.

The front page seemed like the right place to answer that question, especially since the shooting deaths of 32 Virginia Tech students the week before had refocused us on gun violence and the vulnerability of young people.

Front-page decisions also bring about an unfortunate kind of ranking. A good story on an inside page can make readers question what is on 1A.

Two readers contacted me to express outrage that we put this 17-year-old’s Life Story out front while we put the Life Story of Bonnard Moseley, a university professor whose son served in the state Senate, on page 4A the same day.

While the play we gave the stories raises good questions, I wonder about the outrage. The response to the placement of Mr. Robinson’s story prompts some uncomfortable questions.

Was our placement upsetting to some readers because Robinson was riding with a man who had been arrested 61 times? Did that association make Robinson’s life worth less than someone else’s?

Is a teenager whose life is cut short in a violent crime less worthy of attention than a successful 87-year-old who dies of natural causes?

What if the victim, who was black, had been a white college student? Would the front-page placement seem so outrageous?

The truth is that the choice of one Life Story over the other was not a conscious decision. We did decide to put Robinson’s Life Story out front, but it never dawned on me that the other Life Story might deserve to go out there, too. That was an oversight.

But if we did have to choose, I wonder which part of our community would be more important for a newspaper to grieve with. Is it a community that again lost one of its own prematurely? Or is it the community that mourned the loss of a well-connected man who served others through education, civic organizations and his church?

The story of the young man’s life held enough significance to warrant that front page placement. We might have benefited from more discussion beforehand, but I’m comfortable with the result.