Uncomfortable combinations

Every day, the editorial staff at the UK wonders: What are we writing about, why are we writing about it, and how are we writing about it? A weekly look behind the scenes.

Newsrooms are sometimes confronted with unintentional, but uncomfortable combinations of news and/or ads.

In a previous position as editor-in-chief of Dagblad van het Noorden, I once, late at night, asked the commercial department to retract an ad from the front page. This happened shortly after the tsunami of Christmas 2004 and it quickly became clear that thousands upon thousands of people had died – unfortunately that was only the beginning.

The ad was an offer for a day trip to a wave pool, or something like it. In the context of the tsunami, this was quite unfortunate and I imagined that the client (the pool) was of the same mind. Long story short: the ad was skipped.

This went well. Sometimes things don’t.

For instance, in August 2014, de Volkskrant placed a full-page ad next to a story on the complex identification of the MH17 victims (the story stated there were 228 coffins, 176 of which contained a ‘more or less’ complete body). The ad was about a ‘complete body scan, the best technical inspection for your body’.

Many readers felt this was tasteless, as did the editors of de Volkskrant, which later apologised for the incident.

Another one. In April 2013, the front page of a Minnesota (USA) newspaper contained an ad for a pressure cooker for 19 dollars and 95 cents. This ad was placed above the shocking photographs of the Boston marathon bombings. Painful, because it turned out that the explosives that were used were hidden in pressure cookers.

In both examples there was no malicious intent. It was a stupid coincidence, but this does not make the result any less unfortunate.

At UK, the following occurred last week.

On Monday 10 October, the lifeless body of RUG student Wytze Pennink was found in the Lopende Diep. The young man fell into the canal and drown after going home to his room following a party where, police say, a lot of alcohol had been consumed. A fatal accident.

The weeks before this sad news, our freelance staff member for sciences Simone Harmsen worked on a story on what alcohol does to your body; ranging from headaches and strange eye reflexes to nausea and balance disruptions. The information all intended for the thousands of first-year students who have jumped head first into student life for the past two months.

We planned to publish precisely this story in which multiple experts explain the effects of (excessive) alcohol consumption on Tuesday morning, mere hours after news arrived that Wytze (also a first-year student) had died. Simone Harmsen wrote an excellent piece. But still… publishing her story next to the sad news about Wytze made us feel very uncomfortable.

Making the choice was not difficult: we put a hold on publishing the story. We published it this week; I can heartily recommend it.

Rob Siebelink, interim editor-in-chief


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