When Miami police shot a naked man to stop a vicious, public and unprovoked attack of a homeless man in the shadows of The Miami Herald building, our journalists were confronted with almost daily questions:
How much information is too much information? Which photos do you publish?
Some readers have bristled as we report the often grisly details of an incomprehensible act: Rudy Eugene, perhaps in a drug-induced craze, gnawing Ronald Poppo’s face in an unrelenting 18-minute assault that ended only when police shot and killed the assailant. One reader commented under a story “ ...possibly more info than I need to know about this case.” A Twitter follower pleaded with us to stop sending out new details.
Yet the interest in this story has spread far beyond Miami — tragically dubbed the Miami Zombie or the Causeway Cannibal — fueled partly by its macabre nature but also a desire to understand an attack so abhorrent that it defies explanation. How can one human being do this to another?
Reporting this story has required almost daily discussions about which images to use in print, which to use online, what details to report and leave out, and how to appropriately put it into words — all while navigating the sensitive subtexts of this story, from Zombie pop culture to culturally sensitive references to Haitian Voudou.
We navigated the graphic nature of the images from day one, which showed the naked body of Rudy Eugene alongside a half-clothed and severely injured Ronald Poppo. Our initial decision was to not print a crime scene photo on the front page — until we found one that obscured the nudity and Poppo’s extensive injuries.
“In the paper, you turn the page and it’s there,” said Managing Editor Rick Hirsch.
Online, readers can decide whether or not to click. That’s how we handled the recovery photo of Poppo provided by Jackson Memorial Hospital. The photo showed significant recovery, but was still difficult to look at so we posted a warning to readers. However, we never used the post-attack photo of Poppo that went viral, deeming it gratuitously gory for our readers — and easily accessible on the Web for those who wanted to see it.
There are similar challenges around the reporting. Last week, reporter David Ovalle obtained the preliminary autopsy results from a source. Eugene did not have flesh in his stomach, but there were possibly some undigested pills.
“I wasn’t sure how to base a whole story on just a few graphic details,” Ovalle said. “What does it add to the story beyond the titillating facts?”
In this case, it did shed new light on the attack.
“People had been calling him a cannibal but he wasn’t,” Ovalle said. Other details have not met the same bar — and haven’t been published.
There are still many unanswered questions. What happened to Eugene, described as a loving relative and friend who had skirmishes with the law and wanted to quit smoking marijuana? What will become of Poppo?
As we work to provide the details, we’ll continue these discussions in the newsroom as we straddle the fine line between informing and offending our readers.