When should we publish a photo of a car crash?

Chris Cobler By Chris Cobler

Jan. 23, 2013 at 6:02 p.m.
Updated Jan. 22, 2013 at 7:23 p.m.

Advocate journalists hate going to the scene of a car crash. The carnage is tough to see, report on and photograph, but we recognize residents have a keen interest in traffic safety.

The most common incidents readers contact us about via our Facebook page are traffic accidents. They want to know what's happening, and we try to oblige.

After a fatal crash Monday, some readers called into question this practice of publishing accident photos. The photo in question showed the aftermath of a violent collision between a pickup and an 18-wheeler. To perhaps too-hardened journalists, it wasn't a particularly graphic image; it didn't show blood or a grieving family member or any of the other flashpoints we know from experience might cause concern. What was remarkable was the sheer force of the collision.

Photographs pack incredible power, so we try to consider them carefully. We'll talk more at our upcoming ethics board meeting about how we might have foreseen this reaction, compared with the dozens of other crash photos we have published during the past year. We also will re-evaluate whether we should reduce the number of photos we take of accidents and, if so, where we would draw that line.

Some readers suggested strongly that we should report on all accidents without using any photos ever. They called us uncaring and worse for publishing the photo we did.

A few readers defended us with messages like this one: "It probably hits a very raw wound with those who are close to him, but it happened nonetheless. There are probably people very close to him who actually do want to see the wreckage (for closure)."

Newspapers everywhere struggle with these decisions. In a column titled "Crash Photos: Are They Necessary?" former editor Gregg McLachlan wrote:

"Why is it news? Humans are a curious species. We want to know what's happening in our communities. We want to know why an ambulance and two police cars were racing down the highway the previous day. (Interestingly, when car crashes are not reported by the media, phone calls also come in to the editor's desk asking why local news is not being covered).

"Car crash photos also help us learn.

"We learn the potential consequences of not wearing a seat-belt.

"We learn what may happen if we fall asleep at the wheel.

"And we learn what can happen when the rules of the road are disobeyed ..."

Any societal good, though, offers scant comfort to those suffering such a deep personal loss. Our readers' depth of concern about this photo certainly has given us pause. Would it have been better to publish the photo smaller, as we had originally planned, or not at all? Would the photo on the same page of the gutted apartment been better to play as the lead photo on the page? Both images showed the aftermath of tragedy, inanimate objects rendered barely recognizable.

A century from now, humans will look back on our mode of travel and shake their heads at how we hurtled in two-ton hulks of metal toward each other. A friend told me he would show the photo to his teenage son, who is learning to drive, as a lesson about how much can go so terribly wrong in the blink of an eye. We also have two teen drivers in our household, and I fear for them every time they walk out the door. Who among us hasn't been distracted at times while driving? There, but for the grace of God, go I.

We are wired to recognize the pain unseen in photographs, feeling it deeply long after that day's edition has gone to the recycle bin or the bottom of a bird cage. We will reflect on this pain and our role in the community during our upcoming ethics board meeting at 1 p.m. Feb. 12 at our offices, 311 E. Constitution St. If you would like to attend, please call my office at 361-574-1271 so that we may be sure to have extra chairs available.

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



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