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Mitchell Paper Runs Hearsay as Headline on Benda Shooting Death

Richard Lynn Benda was found dead from a gunshot wound Tuesday in a grove of trees near Lake Andes. The Crawford Funeral Chapel says Benda died Sunday. That's awful, and that's all we know.

Amidst the speculation bubbling under cover, the Mitchell Daily Republic sees fit to run rank speculation as headline news:

A colleague of Richard Benda’s said he may have been hunting in the Lake Andes area before he was found dead there Tuesday.

...When asked if [Aberdeen economic development coordinator Julie] Johnson knew what Benda was doing Tuesday in Lake Andes, she replied, “It would only be hearsay from me. I understood he went down there to hunt. But that’s only hearsay” [Luke Hagen, "Source: Dead Official Might Have Been Hunting," Mitchell Daily Republic, 2013.10.24].

Sure, we hear about a person getting shot in South Dakota in the fall, and the default assumption is hunting accident. But we don't turn unsubstantiated assumptions into headlines.

And seriously, Luke? Hearsay for your headline? I'm hearing all sorts of say from sources that I could turn into all sorts of headlines starting with "Source: Dead Official Might Have Been...." But I'm not doing it, and most journalists aren't doing it, because it's all speculation, with no verifiable facts behind it.

Speaking of depression, Hagen goes there, and Johnson tells him not to:

From 2010 to 2013, Benda was a loan administrator for the South Dakota Investment Fund and was the loan monitor for the beef plant, which opened in 2012 with plans to employee hundreds of workers. Johnson said she had talked to Benda since the beef plant closed.

“I never got the impression he was depressed about it,” she said. “I think he still was very proud about their work. As always, start-up projects stumble into financial issues along the way. We didn’t talk about feelings about it. We talked about the reality of it and the process” [Hagen, 2013.10.24].

Johnson doesn't know, I don't know, and the Mitchell Daily Republic doesn't know who pulled the trigger or why. None of us know how Benda felt about Northern Beef Packers losing a whole lot of other people's money or about his recent winning streak in Madison. None of us should be popping out headlines pretending we know until we start getting some facts.


  1. David Newquist 2013.10.24

    "Might have been hunting" is in the subjunctive mood and expresses the conditional aspect. The headline writer was most likely trying to steer the focus on some pertinent circumstances rather than the untempered speculations of blog commenters.

    The real journalistic omission is that there is no mention of how the body was found and by whom. There is no indication in any of the news reports that the question was even asked. Rather, the reports say that the death is being investigated as a crime. . That word comes from the Attorney General’s office. Of course, that spurs no speculation whatever.

    If the medical examination revealed that the death occurred on Sunday and the body was found on Tuesday, there is clearly more known and more information available about the circumstances than what officials choose to release. In other states, reporters would have access to any official reports and records and would be able to provide accurate and timely reports on the progress of any investigation taking place.

    When a professor was found dead from a gunshot wound the day before the election of 2004 at NSU, the press reports revealed that the local police department was in such disarray that its incoherent investigation became the story for a time. The coroner’s official report listed the death. Months later the chief of police announced that the cause of death had been changed to suicide. This was done on the basis of some consultant’s report which was never released to the public. Some contradictions of evidence and circumstance were never reconciled.

    The press is very timid about insisting on full and complete information from officials in South Dakota. Their level and competence of performance is kept from the public that way. Suffice it to say, this just cannot happen in most other states. And unpleasant as the facts might be, the public will know what happened to the subject and how the officials are performing their jobs.

  2. Becky Froehlich 2013.10.24

    Even if the public makes its own inappropriate assumptions about the death of a public figure but that doesn't mean a newspaper should address the speculation. That was really unprofessional.

  3. interested party 2013.10.24

    the bad guys run the other way.

  4. Douglas Wiken 2013.10.24

    I suspect they needed to followup yesterdays non-content notice with something more and they weren't getting that from law enforcement. It is good they called it "hear say", but "unconfirmed reports" might have been better. At least they did not report the speculation as hard and fast news.

    It was not one of their finest moments however. Sometimes when there is no news, it is better to report nothing than to report no news.

  5. grudznick 2013.10.24

    Maybe it's because nobody wants to release incomplete or incorrect information.

    Maybe it's because its NOYB.

  6. twuecker 2013.10.24

    Just to run a little bit of interference for the reporter, you shouldn't necessarily scold Luke for the headline. It wasn't standard practice, either when I wrote for and edited a weekly college publication or reported for a regular daily newspaper in this state for the reporter to be the one headlining her/his own story; that responsibility fell to the editor, who was the one determining the size and placement (and, thus, all the headline-relative layout questions) of the story. The reporting, perhaps, still leaves something to be desired (although even there, everything is listed pretty clearly as "hearsay," leaving it largely in the hands of an editor to decide whether or not the story is newsworthy ... and I would agree, Cory, that it isn't). You're on point with the critique, just perhaps not with who's to blame.

  7. Douglas Wiken 2013.10.24

    As far as I can tell, the headlines for the RC Journal aren't even written locally but by somebody in Indiana perhaps. They are so ludicrous now and then that they could not be written by anybody in Rapid City or anyplace else in South Dakota.

  8. Troy 2013.10.25

    What are any of going to do different if we know more today or tomorrow? Nothing.

    There is no reason to speculate about anything. We may learn a lot in the future.

    Rich has friends and fa,ily in mourning. If you knew Rich, you don't need new information. If you didn't know Rich, why do you need any information at this time.

  9. Wayne Pauli 2013.10.25

    It is what we do in the 21st century. We demand to know even when most of the time it is #NoneOfOurBusiness. A man is dead, family is mourning, there are people that miss him. The "how" is no more important than "why" and that answer will most probably go unanswered. You are not getting the tooth paste back in the tube.

    I find very little that I agree with grudznick about, but this is one.

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.10.25

    Troy, Wayne, we could ask such questions about any accidental death/suicide/murder/tragedy-of-the-week story, like the story about the little boy in Sioux Falls who was killed by his mom's boyfriend. Knowing the details of that child's death makes for great drama, but it does little to enlighten us about matters of public concern. Knowing the little boy happened to be the biological offspring of a famous football player heightens the emotional intensity and the urge to live parasitically off the grief of others, but we still don't learn much. That's why I usually don't blog about the typical KELO-leading crime-of-the-night stories: they are emotional, not instructive.

  11. Seth Tupper 2013.10.25

    Further information today:

    Does all of this reporting mean we're declaring it was a hunting accident? No. We're just reporting what well-placed, on-the-record sources are saying. And there's absolutely nothing irresponsible about that kind of reporting or the headlines above it. We're journalists reporting a developing story. That's what we do.

    Seth Tupper
    The Daily Republic

  12. Anne 2013.10.25

    I come to South Dakota now only every few months, but I am incresingly surprised at what occupies the minds of bloggers. That some think that the death of a person whose body is found with a gunshot wound and which case is taken over by the state's top law enforcement officer who declares the site of death a crime scene is nobody's business. Or that attempts by a newspaper to develop an account of that death is considered irresponsible.

    I guess people do get the government and the news they want and deserve.

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