Public Editor

Grim news: How much is too much?

Can a story be both interesting and repellent at the same time? Absolutely, according to readers who have contacted me about how The Kansas City Star has covered the news lately.

We have all seen too many grim subjects in current events over the past few weeks: a multiple murder on an Ottawa farm, women imprisoned for a decade in a Cleveland house, death and dismemberment at the Boston Marathon finish line. It’s understandable that some readers have felt the overload.

“I almost hate that I read today’s piece about these poor girls saved in Cleveland,” said a caller last week. “It’s like I feel myself wanting to know every detail about it, but I also want to say, just step back and put the paper down.

“I hope (The Star) will use some restraint when we find out more about all the details. We see enough of that stuff on TV, so don’t repeat all that.”

Some readers had a similar reaction to May 5’s front-page story, “Truth dies with women’s killer,” which looked at the question of whether Derek Richardson, who was accused of strangling two women, had actually killed more before he died in a jailhouse suicide.

One emailer called it “just a plain gross National Enquirer-type article, not needed on any front page.”

Another reader said the story was “well told and informative,” but she also questioned whether it was a tale that merited being told.

“Has The Star ever thought that its readers just don’t need to know so much about this, well, I won’t call him a man, but this person who did these things?” she asked.

The story notes that while Richardson claimed responsibility for at least two other murders in central Missouri and New Mexico, detectives had been unable to connect him with any other reported crimes or missing persons.

My caller said she definitely thinks The Star should follow up on the story in the future if law enforcement finds further evidence implicating Richardson in other crimes. But until that happens, the coverage “actual fulfills his wishes to be remembered as an infamous serial killer.”

Referring to the large, dramatic visuals that accompanied the story, she added, “Even if he’s dead, I don’t think it was the right (choice) to put his face here, larger than life on the front page.”

Last Thursday, another reader complimented The Star for showing comparative restraint in how it reported another crime that has gotten national attention for dubious reasons.

“I’ve got to admit I was expecting worse,” he said. “I was really thinking I was going to get my Star out of the bag and see this stupid, nothing story about Jodi Arias getting convicted for murder on the front page. At least your editors had some judgment and put it (on Page A2).”

He asked whether I understood why cable news and the Internet are so focused on the 2008 Arizona murder case. I’m perplexed as well.

The only detail that stands out to me is that Arias — like Casey Anthony in Florida and Amanda Knox in Italy — is an accused killer who is also a young, attractive white woman.

To focus more on any of these women because she doesn’t fit an ill-informed stereotype of the kind of person who commits crimes is a lapse in news judgment. However, once a story takes on such national prominence, outsized or not, editors risk being criticized as out of touch if they don’t cover it at all.