Published in the Tillamook County Pioneer 1/15/2020
An Example of Bad Taste, And Worse
I quickly went from shock to a strong sense of revulsion and disgust the other day, as I was checking up on the latest local news.
It was a story of tragedy and grief. A young mother was killed in a traffic crash, with her baby rushed to the hospital. The text of the story, taken from the Sheriff’s press release, told me all I needed (and wanted) to know. The story was a traumatic reminder of the fragility of human life and the senseless disaster of traffic crashes.
What left me numb and sickened, and then outraged, was the accompanying color photo of the car, horrific in every detail, posted by a local newspaper. The photo didn’t add to the story, and instead it fueled my emotions and smacked of tabloid journalism and poor taste.
I thought of the victim’s family and friends, and of all those impacted by the tragedy, and how seeing that photo would amplify their grief. And, to what purpose was the photo published?
When I was a prosecutor in the criminal justice system, I reviewed countless photos of tragedy. I sometimes used them to assist experts determine causation, and in court as evidence for the judge or jury to consider in making their findings. In deciding on whether to use a particular photo, I always asked myself three questions: is it true, is it kind, and is it necessary?
If the photo was the only way to convey an important fact, I still needed to decide if the real motive to submit it into evidence was to simply be dramatic, or appeal to lurid or emotional sensationalism. Photos that didn’t meet those standards were left in the case file.
Like prosecutors, journalists also have professional standards of ethics.
A position paper on reporting stories of grief and tragedy by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), takes on these questions:
“Stories involving grief and victims goes to the heart of one of the tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics: minimize harm.
“The Code recognizes the responsibility to … show compassion…be sensitive… ,. When using photographs (be sensitive) to those affected by tragedy or grief.
“(A)void pandering to lurid curiosity. … media will receive higher marks if they present their stories in responsible fashion without resorting to sensationalism in words or photos.” (SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers: Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims) https://www.spj.org/ethics-papers-grief.asp
Like all professions, journalists have an ethical responsibility to conduct their work without subjecting others to ridicule or lurid sensationalism. That responsibility, in this instance, is sorely lacking and leads to an unhealthier, less loving and compassionate community.
As a community, we can do better.