Your Advocate column: News photos pack power, require care
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Grief is the most personal of emotions.
We can never be prepared fully to deal with such deep loss, particularly when it comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Those close to someone grieving also rarely know what to say or do. There is no one right way to grieve.
All of this adds to the challenges we face at a newspaper when reporting on the death of a community member. We can't develop one-size-fits-all policies for how to handle the variety of situations that might arise. Our ethics board members were reminded of this during an hourlong discussion lastweek about how to handle photographs of fatal traffic crashes.
We read some of the Facebook comments left by family and friends angry about the front-page photo Jan. 22 after the death of a 33-year-old Victoria man. Many were along these lines: "Shame on the Victoria Advocate for allowing the use of 'sensational' photos of a death scene without one shred of respect for the family of the deceased."
Ethics board members talked about how we combat this perception when we do care deeply about our friends and neighbors. The disconnect reflected by these two polar-opposite views disturbed us.
Our job is to report the news, no matter how sad it might be, but we also must show compassion. The challenge is how to do that when our 90,000 readers react differently to such situations.
One mother whose son died in a rollover accident in 2009 contacted us after my previous column on the question of photo coverage. In that instance, we didn't have a photo because the crash occurred in the middle of the night some distance from Victoria. She said she wished we had published a photo so that others would see what her son went through and to provide her some closure.
Another reader on Facebook offered a similar sentiment: "As for publishing the pictures: It is whatever you choose to make of it. I've had loved ones killed in accidents, and I have always gone and looked at the vehicle. It's the place my loved one breathed their last, and I felt a connection. I remember driver's ed classes where they showed accidents and what happened to the occupants. Our kids don't get that with Mom and Dad teaching them to drive now. I show my teen these types of pictures and tell him it can happen to anyone at anytime. Thank you, Advocate, for publishing the whole story with pics."
One board member echoed that thought, saying such photos serve a purpose if even just one person drives a little more carefully and by so doing saves a life.
At the same time, we recognized we must balance the public good with the personal toll. We are compelled to try to minimize harm created by what we publish.
One way we do this is to try to contact the family to let them know coverage is coming, giving them the opportunity to speak and warning them to avoid the paper if they so choose. Another way we do this is to consider carefully the photos we select to publish.
For example, we have a longstanding policy against showing a body or blood at such a scene. Board members talked about how we broke our own policy with a small photo showing some blood that appeared with an earlier story about a different fatal crash. We agreed we needed to heighten our sensitivity to all such photos and discuss at even greater length how we handle them before publication.
However, almost all board members said they thought the photo in question was appropriate and didn't go too far. Some suggested the image might have been better played on an inside page, and we agreed we need to consider this option more in the future.
We wish we could develop a policy that would make everyone happy, but that's not a reality available to us. The best we can do is to listen and try our best to serve our community.
Chris Cobler is the editor of the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 361-574-1271.