About News

Staring Death in the Face – Voluntarily

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Reporters witness more death than they want to, be it war, disaster, disease, crime or accidents. It’s a whole different jolt to the conscience, though, when a death is scheduled and government sanctioned.

Members of the media are standard witnesses whenever a state – at least in this country – carries out a death penalty. This was in the headlines in Alabama 10 days ago when state news organizations unsuccessfully protested a decision by the state Department of Corrections to allow only one media witness to the lethal injection of an inmate. The DOC cited pandemic safety measures.

The media’s interest in attending such events in numbers isn’t because they want a sensationalistic headline. Rather, it’s a watchdog role. “We are there to observe and report on the most powerful thing the state can do to a person,” said Kent Faulk, the managing producer for state news for the Alabama Media Group and a former colleague of mine. “We need to make sure they are held accountable, doing things the way they are supposed to.”

Why can’t just one reporter do that? Faulk knows. He’s covered seven executions – six by injection of drugs and one by electrocution in 1989. The steps of an execution happen rapidly, and full reporting requires observing the actions of the inmate, the prison officials and the families gathered. Recording is not allowed. One reporter might miss a moment that matters. Sometimes, Faulk said, reporters confer to confirm the sequence of moments, precise times and even the inmate’s exact last words.

The value of multiple reporters increases when executions seem not to happen as they should. Faulk witnessed that in 2016 when a convict heaved, gasped and coughed for 13 minutes as an initial drug failed to render him unconscious. On Thursday in Oklahoma, an inmate receiving deadly drugs including the same initial drug as in the 2016 Alabama case, died after vomiting and convulsing. The Oklahoma DOC claimed the killing occurred “without complication,” thus unintentionally underscoring the need for media observers.

With or without complications, death penalties can puncture the stoic detachment expected of journalists as they do their jobs. Faulk recalls one first-time media witness who almost passed out. He remembers two others on different occasions who had traveled to the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore and were in the media center but decided they didn’t want to go to the death chamber. Their editors weren’t pleased, Faulk said.

“They didn’t think they could take it, watching a person die,” he said. “I understand their reasoning. The down and dirty reporter says, ‘You got to toughen up.’ But this is different. This is watching a living person die. … Reporters are human beings too. It’s one of the worst things you can ever witness.”

Faulk’s first assignment to see an execution, the midnight electrocution 32 years ago, remains vivid today. “I still remember the scared look on the inmate’s face. … I didn’t get to sleep that night.” But he doesn’t think he’s been psychologically affected by witnessing seven executions (a relatively small number compared to some reporters).

In fact, he said he’d want to observe a future execution if the state uses the new method of nitrogen hypoxia. By observing all the methods the state has used over the years, “I feel like my perspective might be good” in discussing issues of effectiveness and humaneness. The state hasn’t used electrocution in 20 years, though in 2015 the Legislature discussed a possible return to that method because of limited availability of suitable drugs.

Journalists certainly fall on both sides of the death penalty morality issue (a question that Faulk understandably declined to address). But I think the executions to which journalists bear witness can cause problems of conscience regardless of one’s moral view. That’s because it is the nature of many journalists to look skeptically at systems of authority and to feel alarm over extreme uses of power. If I were a witness (I haven’t been), some part of the disquieting psychological aftermath would come from wondering if a fallible justice system had condemned an innocent person.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

 About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.