Debate over how a killer’s story is portrayed

Listeners to a Story Corps episode on NPR about what happened when a man met the imprisoned man who killed his son in a shooting spree on a Western Massachusetts campus apparently noticed the same thing about the episode that I did when I wrote about it the day it aired: There was a lot of context left out.

While there was a mention of how easy killer Wayne Lo said it was to get the gun he used to kill student Galen Gibson, 18, and teacher Ñacuñán Sáez, 37, and wound several others, including Thomas McElderry, then 19, of New York Mills, Minn., there was nothing on the episode about Lo’s beliefs. He wrote a class paper arguing that people with AIDS should be banished to Utah. Other students said he hated Jews, blacks and homosexuals, and claimed the Holocaust never happened, the NY Times reported at the time.

Not mentioned either was the fact that some of the survivors of the shooting spree had pressured NPR and the producers of StoryCorps (which is an independent producer) to pull the piece, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen writes today.

Airing the piece “would be an insult not only to survivors of this particular crime, but to survivors of mass shootings generally,” one survivor of the shooting said. Another said there was no reason to raise the killer’s profile.

NPR’s standards & practices editor, Mark Memmott said, “given the number of mass shootings in the country in recent years, we felt such a conversation was timely. Tough to listen to, certainly, but potentially important to understanding how such tragedies affect those they touch.”

No question it’s timely, but so too is the full context of the story that was missed in the 50 minutes of the interview that was edited out.

Jensen determined the story — and one that aired on All Things Considered several days later — was placed in proper context.

“The complaints e-mailed to the NPR newsroom are always a good reminder that not everyone will agree on what constitutes acceptable journalism. Gibson [the father of the dead student] himself acknowledged that others would be unhappy with the conversation,” she wrote.

But the father had also said he told his story to try to prevent the mass shooting from happening to someone else. Leaving out the elements of Lo’s racism and mental illness, while leaving in the details of the ease of buying a gun in Massachusetts in 1992, make it that much harder to achieve the goal.