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News photos can make a difference in road safety

By BY CHRIS COBLER
Nov. 20, 2013 at 5:20 a.m.


Growing up, I never wore a seat belt.

After all, seat belts weren't even required in new automobiles until Jan. 1, 1968, when I was 7. My siblings and I have happy memories of rolling around the back seat of our parents' big Buick while our dad roared across western Kansas on family vacations.

I wasn't wearing a seat belt when I was 16 and rolled my parents' Toyota on a gravel road heading home from a feed store. Only by the grace of God was I not ejected and killed. I crawled out of the car, shaken and scared but with just a sore back to remind me of how close I had come to death.

Even after this, I still wore my seat belt only sporadically. It wasn't until after I became a police reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph and saw a series of gruesome accident scenes that I started to faithfully buckle up. Those horrific images lingered in my mind as I drove around the city, making me a safer driver than I had been before.

My personal experience informs my view as a journalist about why we should publish photos of some accident scenes. Driving is the biggest responsibility most of us assume every day, yet we usually treat it as casually as a walk in the park.

Certainly, journalists should consider carefully how and when we publish these photos, being ever mindful to minimize the harm they might cause to loved ones. We wouldn't want to show a body, for example, or something else that might unduly upset family members.

I bring all of this back up today because a reader objected to the small photo we placed at the bottom of Monday's front page after a fatal crash on U.S. 59. The photo showed a wrecked Suburban being towed, but the image was far from the grisly scenes I witnessed back in my days as a reporter.

Even still, the image enraged this particular reader, prompting another discussion in the newsroom about how we deal with this issue. As regular readers know, we have covered this question several times in our ethics board meetings.

When our board discussed this question in February, we agreed our job was to report the news, no matter how sad it might be, but to also show compassion. We generally try to walk this line by carefully choosing the photo we select to publish, but this reader argued that we shouldn't print any such images.

That certainly would be a simpler approach, but it goes against our journalistic imperative to seek the truth and report it. Is it best serving society to leave images of fatal crashes entirely out of any newspaper? If such deaths are tucked away in a hidden corner of the newspaper, will the public be less likely to advocate for increased safety measures?

I would answer yes, but the community reaction to these photos feels stronger than at any time before in my 32-year newspaper career. Perhaps this is because of the digital delivery of the news. Our editors spend a great deal of time, for example, thinking about how an image appears in print, but we have only one standard way photos publish on our website. Online, the photos are all bigger and crystal clear - no printing press to dull the senses. It might make sense to figure out how to link to such photos from the article about the crash rather than have them appear at the top, as most newspaper websites handle them. Or we might work on making the images appear smaller online.

My sense is readers will continue to seek out these stories regardless of how the newspaper presents them. Invariably, our top-read stories online are breaking news items like a car crash, fire or murder. Believe me, we wish readers sought out more the many other stories we do on football-playing valedictorians, 40-year pastors and award-winning poets.

It's human nature for people to be concerned first and foremost about their safety. If these visual reminders make us all a little bit safer, then the newspaper is serving a proper public good.

Maybe this is all just wishful thinking on my part. Maybe we'll all keep texting, talking and driving no matter what the newspaper does. The statistics, though, do show our highways are becoming safer. When I was a new driver almost killed by my stupidity and poor driving skills, about 21 of every 1,000 U.S. residents died in traffic crashes. In 2011, that number had dropped in half to 10.4.

What will it take to get us to cut that figure in half again in the next 30 years?

Chris Cobler is the editor of the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached at ccobler@vicad.com or at 361-574-1271.

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