When does a personal tragedy become a public concern? What role should the media play in publishing information about the people involved in an accidental death? And what is the value of sharing that information with the community?
When 6-year-old Isaac Childress drowned in the Mississippi River on August 29, 2020, his death appeared widely on TV news. Reporters covered the search to recover his body off Boom Island, in Minneapolis; they played video clips of his grieving mother, Dominique Alexander. The daily papers ran a brief account of the accident, too, drawing on an announcement from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. And then the cameras moved on.
We started reporting this story a month ago when we learned of public documents that hadn’t previously been reported. These records, which we obtained through public records requests, placed two prominent political and nonprofit figures on the scene of Isaac’s death. No other media had mentioned their involvement in the drowning.
Local media routinely report on accidental deaths and lawsuits. Many of these incidents—from car accidents to heart attacks on the football field—carry personal consequences for families and friends. Yet as a community, we don’t treat these losses as secret. And neither do journalists.
The drowning death of Isaac Childress asserted an even more compelling public interest. Over the past six months, the Samuelses have become leading spokespeople in the debate over the Minneapolis Police Department and the future of public safety in Minneapolis.
That campaign follows decades of involvement by the Samuelses in the city’s government and nonprofit leadership. Don Samuels represented north Minneapolis for more than a decade in the City Council. Sondra Samuels runs the Northside Achievement Zone, a nonprofit with $12 million in annual revenues, which serves more than 2,000 children in north Minneapolis.
Organizations that focus on child welfare bear special responsibilities. The involvement of leadership in an accidental child death raises questions about how the organization manages standards related to child safety and welfare.
In reporting this story, Sahan Journal gathered documents through public records requests, collected accounts from witnesses, spoke to Isaac’s mother and sisters, and interviewed the Samuelses. To learn more about parks policy and child safety standards, we also contacted the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board and the Northside Achievement Zone. (In a companion story, we examined racial gaps in drowning deaths and what steps could help save the lives of children of color.)
Through that reporting work, Sahan Journal weighed the account we’d uncovered. An accidental death, public figures, an undisclosed legal settlement, nonprofit oversight, child welfare: We believe this set of circumstances more than meets the standards to qualify as news.
Not everyone in the community may agree with that judgment. We welcome emails and communication about how Sahan Journal conducts its reporting and fulfills its mission. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.