Photos from a fatal accident in south Oneida were posted by the Independent Herald to our Facebook page (and website) Friday evening, prompting a lively debate about common decency and posting wreck photos.
Some readers were offended that photos were posted, saying that family or friends can learn of tragedy by seeing the photos posted to the internet before being informed through the traditional channels. Others said posting the photos is merely a way of reporting the news. A couple of readers were offended that newspapers publish accident photos in general.
I have long said that the least favorite thing about my job is covering traffic accidents. I don’t deal well with the suffering of others. Give me a criminal trial or a public corruption scandal any day.
The reality, though, is that when a newspaper has photos of a terrible wreck on the front page, that paper will inevitably sell more copies than editions that do not include such photos. That leads to the inevitable conclusion that “wrecks sell.” Which is the unavoidable truth, of course, but it isn’t the motivation for publishing the photos. Rather, it is the cause of the increased sales that is the motivation for publishing the photos.
News coverage is dictated by things people care about, whether it is a recap of the Friday night football game, coverage of efforts to reopen a community hospital or, in this case, a traffic accident.
In reality, a traffic accident directly impacts far fewer people than the community hospital or even the football game, but more people have a deep-rooted interest in those accidents than just about any other issue. That is true in communities of any size but especially in small communities like ours, where we tend to know more of our neighbors and have closer bonds with one another.
For that reason, traffic accidents are news and there is a demand to know what happened. Oftentimes, when I’m covering an accident, I’ll receive multiple calls or text messages before I leave the scene from people wanting to know who was involved or the make/model of the vehicles involved. It isn’t uncommon to see posts to Facebook and other social media from folks asking if anyone has any information about an accident at such-and-such location.
It’s something that is deeply ingrained on our human nature. I cannot lie — I wish it wasn’t so. If I never had to take photos of another traffic accident, I would be tickled. But in the meantime, any newspaper that doesn’t fulfill its purpose of keeping its readers informed is a newspaper that ceases to be relevant. And a newspaper that is no longer relevant might as well silence the printing presses and put up a “for sale” sign.
With all that said, there are some rules of common decency that any news organization publishing accident photos can and is expected to follow. They aren’t written in stone; they vary from organization to organization and community to community, and they change with time. There was an age when publishing photos of deceased victims at the scene of an accident was common. Nowadays that is generally considered unacceptable, and for good reason.
Many law enforcement agencies will not permit photographers or reporters to get close to an accident scene until the victims have been removed from the vehicles and transported from the scene. Ours, both the Scott County Sheriff’s Department and Oneida Police Department, do not typically prevent our access to the scene of accidents. It takes years to build a trust with law enforcement officials that your news publication will do things “the right way,” and that isn’t a trust that is taken for granted. It is a trust that we strive hard to protect.
As is always the case, we intentionally delayed publishing the photos until some time had passed. In these days of constantly improving technology, it is possible to post photos almost instantaneously, but that would not be appropriate in situations where a fatality is expected or feared. Just as it is common decency to withhold the name of an accident victim until his or her family has been notified, it is also appropriate to withhold photos until such notification has taken place.
In the end, news reporting is a balancing act — informing readers of what is happening within their community as efficiently as possible while also doing it the “right” way.
I am sometimes asked what I would do if someone I know or care about was involved in such an accident. There is probably a better than average chance that the day will come when I go to an accident scene and discover that one of my family members or close friends is involved. None of us can truly know how we will react until we’re actually faced with a situation, but if I don’t take photos and report what happened, I won’t be doing my job.
■ Ben Garrett is editor of the Independent Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.