An Unattended Death Puts Newsroom to Test

By Lee Anne Peck

Should a news organization publish a dead man’s earlier prison sentence? A 36-year-old man, Kevin Benham, was discovered drowned by hikers in a wilderness area. The hikers tried to revive him but were unsuccessful. Benham’s death was ruled “unattended, ” and the coroner reported the death was not a suicide.

Benham had Huntington’s Disease, which is a hereditary, degenerative brain disorder; this disease has no cure. Take note: The disease also slowly diminishes a person’s ability to reason, walk and talk.  Benham’s biological mother and two brothers died from Huntington’s. The coroner noted that Benham most likely died from the disease.

As a reporter from the Adriondack Daily Enterprise began researching background information for a story and obituary on Benham, he came across information that Benham had served eight years in an Arizona prison for kidnapping a woman. He was also listed as a sexual predator. Benham’s lawyer had told the court about his client’s disease and tried to explain this is why Benham had kidnapped the girl.

After Benham served his sentence, he had returned home a year ago from Arizona.

Managing Editor Peter Crowley and his staff struggled with whether to print that information in the Sept. 26, 2013, afternoon edition  of the newspaper.  The story had already been published online without the prison sentence.

When I talked with Crowley, we discussed what his staff’s professional values were.  What good would printing the information do if Benham was already gone? What harm would happen to those who were left (his adopted family)?

The rival paper, The (Plattsburgh) Press Republican, did print the prison sentence and also reported that Benham had been registered locally as a sex offender.

In the end, the Daily Enterprise never did print the prison sentence information. I told Crowley I agreed with him:  The reporting of the prison sentence would serve no purpose at this point.

See how two competing newspapers covered this same story:

Link to Adirondack Daily Enterprise:
http://www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com/page/content.detail/id/539095/Police-identify-local-man-who-died-in-High-Peaks.html?nav=5008
The Press Republican of Plattsburgh link:
http://pressrepublican.com/0100_news/x1442571330/Saranac-Lake-man-drowns-in-Marcy-Brook

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