Saturday, July 11, 2015

The nature of the beast

The headline called it a "fiery crash" and a few people expressed their outrage that a newspaper would put photos of a burning car and firefighters working to rescue a person from his wrecked truck (the person in the truck could not be seen in the photo.)
Meanwhile, nearly 3,000 people looked at the the photos, following the link from the newspaper's Facebook page to the newspaper's website. 
That raises the question (to paraphrase a line from a "Star Trek" move), "Do the desires of the few outweigh the desires of the many?"
I was the photographer who shot the pictures in question and I assure you I would have much rather been taking photos of some cute bunnies at the fair or darling little girls in a dance recital than to take photos at "a fiery crash," for that is indeed what it was. 
The people stopped in traffic for more than a half an hour wanted to know why traffic was backed up as much as a mile. At least two of those people asked me about it as I walked back to my car. 
I believe we did the right thing by posting those photos online, even before we had the names of the victims (there was one injury -- a boy was burned by the airbag in the car.) The thing is, we weren't the first to take photos of the wreck. My boss texted me from Parke County with a short video of the plume of smoke rising from the crash. 
The criticism and the interest shown (there were nearly two dozen times our Facebook entry was shared) raises ethical questions about media, including newspapers, TV, radio and the World Wide Web. 
The critics said they wondered if their family and friends who drive a car similar to the burned out shell of the vehicle we photographed were the victims. They said we shouldn't have posted the photos before we could identify the people involved in the crash. 
That's an interesting idea. In response I would ask, "Would you not contact those people and ask if they were the ones involved?" and "Would not everyone with family and friends who might be traveling that stretch of road be concerned?" Remember, the crash was already on Facebook before we snapped our first photo. 
The fact is a newspaper, a news story regardless of the medium, isn't able to tell the whole story. It is a snapshot in time. 
The reality is, that is the best it can be. 
One of the biggest news stories of the 20th century was Watergate. It was reported over a period of months with many stories about developments published in The Washington Post and other newspapers, on radio and on TV. 
Even after President Nixon left office and books were written, critics said the whole story hadn't been told. 
One of the best pieces of advice I received on journalism came from an editor of a Missouri newspaper who said, "A newspaper ought to be a snapshot of what happened on a particular day." 

That is not only a worthy goal but it is the best any of us in the business can hope to accomplish. That's just the nature of the beast.