When news breaks

The morning Jake Rosa died, the news got to me in one of those small-town ways. A town councilman called my wife at the law office where she works, and she called me.

“I just saw him,” she said, her voice on the other end of the line sounding stunned and shaky. Julia was elected to serve on the Middletown (Delaware County) town board last November — along with Jake, the seasoned incumbent — and she had just attended her first official meeting two days earlier. Jake and the other board members had given her some friendly ribbing about showing up with a huge stack of manuals; she’d wanted to be prepared.

I didn’t know Jake terribly well, but when someone so obviously hale and vital dies, there’s always a moment of disbelief. No, it’s not possible. He was just here. And then, because it is a small town, the network of his family begins to take shape in your mind. You can’t know, but you have a sense — the grief, the unknowable bulk of it, like a wreck submerged beneath deep water.

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It’s impossible to live here and not know the Rosas. As a reporter, I’ve been at fire scenes with Jake’s uncle Gene, chief of the Margaretville Fire Department. I’ve photographed his other uncle Gary, a longtime local judge, standing with philosophical calm amid the ruin of Main Street after the Irene flood. I’ve lost track of how many hours I’ve spent pestering his father Alan, director of the Catskill Watershed Corporation, about arcane matters of watershed law and policy. It feels like Jake’s death struck a blow at every institution holding this town together.

It’s been a rough week in the Margaretville area. Another young man from a deep-rooted local clan, 32-year-old Rion Gavette, died on New Year’s Day, in a one-car crash on a cold and lonely rural road.

Both of these deaths were senseless accidents. There’s no one to blame, no one to rage at. Unless you count the local paper, which is taking ferocious heat all over town for publishing a Facebook post about Jake’s death on Friday morning, just a couple of hours after it happened.

All day on Friday, the Catskill Mountain News’s Facebook page fielded angry complaints and one-star reviews, some from readers furious that family members had found out the news of a relative’s death on social media. Late that evening, the paper put up an apology.

It’s tempting to play armchair quarterback here. News industry guidelines urge caution when reporting on deaths, no matter how public; I’d like to think that if I were still reporting local breaking news as editor of the Watershed Post, I would have been more patient. But the fact is, we make mistakes.

Having to account for yourself and your news judgment before a horde of angry readers is one of life’s more humiliating experiences. On the other hand, experience is a great teacher, and for many reporters, the only one they ever get. I once went a little too far over the line in photographing bloody wreckage at the site of a nonfatal plane crash; thanks to a thorough excoriation by dozens of angry firefighters and pilots, I now have a better appreciation for the human cost of every drop.

More and more frequently, the news we read is being served up to us not by humans making judgment calls, but by machines coded with hidden algorithms for discovering and sorting information. The news of Jake’s death — weighed, reported and written by a human being — was selectively distributed across local networks by an algorithm that took notice of how much attention it was getting from readers, and decided according to some secret formula how visible it should be in the community, and to who.

It’s tempting to think of algorithms as neutral, but they have biases baked in. If we train them on our language and our culture, they will absorb our prejudices. And “biases” is just another word for “values.” If we value engagement, the digital curators we build will increasingly serve us things that enrage us, or prod us to respond.

One thing no algorithm can do (at least not yet): feel the burn of shame at having made the wrong call, or the pressure of having to bear responsibility for the well-being of the community. For that sort of thing, you’ll have to rely on your all-too-human local reporter, warts and all. Reporters are getting very thin on the ground in rural America, thanks to the destruction of their natural habitat, but we still have a few of them around here.

Sometimes failing to report something sensitive can be just as devastating to friends and family as jumping the gun. I read a story not long ago, written in snippets on Twitter by Caryn Vainio, a virtual reality designer and alpaca farmer with many friends in the online-heavy world of gaming. When a friend of Vainio’s died unexpectedly, she visited his Facebook page, looking to understand what had happened.

To her shock and dismay, she found that he had posted about being hospitalized, about a month before his death. Vainio believes that because he only posted to Facebook infrequently, the site’s algorithm decided his posts weren’t as important as others, and selectively hid his post about being in the hospital so that few of his friends saw it in their feeds.

“We never knew to reach out,” she wrote. “And worse, we never commented, because we never saw it. Did he die wondering if we cared? He didn’t know, and we didn’t know.”

Try as we might to get it right, we make dodgy editorial judgment calls all the time — news reporters and algorithms and regular people alike. We humans are lucky that a few of them are still ours to make.

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