Sunday, June 01, 2008

How to choose

I don't mean to upsurp someone elses blog post, but I think my answer was going to be a bit longer than really could be handled in the comments section.

The debate is this...there's a fishing tragedy in Atlantic Canada and two men die. The local paper shows the body bags being unloaded from a search craft. Now, does that go to far?

On and off, I was a reporter for about 15 years. And I tell you, there is no right answer for this. I know that's not helpful at all...welcome to Journalism Ethics, easily the most frustrating course I took in journalism school.

I'm not going to get into the merits of that photo and that situation. Instead, I'm going to relate two things from my own experience.

When I worked with the Packet there was only one occasion where I photographed an accident. I was still relatively new to the paper and there had been a fender bender on Manitoba Drive, but there were injuries. My editor sent me up to take photos. When I got there, I saw the ambulances and a guy being put on a board, as a percaution for a back injury. I tried to stay a respectful distance back and use a telephoto lens to get pictures.

However, the family spotted me and flipped out. They came over and yelled at me, told me in no uncertain terms to get the fuck out of here and other profanities. The RCMP actually had to come over to take them away from me. They also shot me a pretty dirty look.

I was still pretty green at this point, but it shook me up. I went back to the office and told my editor, a woman I still have tremendous respect for, in no uncertain terms I was never doing that again and if she had a problem, she could take the pictures herself or fire me.

I never took another accident scene photo during my time with the Packet. I know other reporters after me have, but I never did and my editor was good enough to respect my wishes.

Does that mean I oppose these kind of photos? No. It just means that I, as a reporter and photographer, could not emotionally handle doing it. Others can and they often provide a useful service.

This is hard to grasp, but terrible things are reported every day. And reporters and photographer try to convey that story all the time. They try to get the emotional impact with words and photos, to get past the walls that we all build to avoid having to face these things.

Do I think there are sensationalistic ones out there, just trying to sell a few papers and make a buck? Of course. I'm not an idiot. But I think there are a lot out there who are also just trying to tell good stories and break through the walls we all put up when faced with terrible news.

Reporters can craft the best story possible, but sometimes you just need the punch of a wrenching photo. Surveys have been done showing people are much more likely to read a story if there's a photo. And that goes up higher if it's a photo that really catches your eye. That photo of the fishermen in body bags did. It made people read the story. The tragedy is that lots of fishermen die. It's just the nature of their profession and the risks they take. If you have to do that little bit extra to get people to pay attention to it, and if that involves running a photo that provokes an emotional reaction, sometimes you have to do that.

When I did Journalism Ethics 15 years or so ago, my prof showed me a video. Megan might have seen the same one since we both went to King's. It was from the Lockerbie disaster in Scotland. The video wasn't from the crash site, but from New York. TV crews had gathered at the airport the plane had left from and for whatever reason, the airline hadn't snapped up family right away once they knew the plane was lost.

So this woman rushes to the terminal to find out about the plane, only for some idiot to tell her, right at the counter with the cameras rolling, that her teenage daughter was dead.

The woman lost her mind. There are no other words to discribe it. It is as complete a collapse of a human being as I've ever seen. I'm upset just typing this, that's how horrifying the video was. And the camera crews taped it. But only one news program ran the video. That's how wrenching it was. New York media were too disturbed to run it.

So the question in ethics was, "do you run that video if you're the news director?" Most people said no, but a few said yes.

And I don't know. I don't. Is it explotive or did it just sum up the horror of terrorists blowing up a plane in a way that seeing some wreckage scattered on the ground in Scotland never could? I don't know. Perhaps that's why I'm not an editor at the Globe and Mail. I don't know if I can make that call. I see both sides of that argument too clearly.

But I will say this. There probably have been a dozen or more major plane crashes since Lockerbie. Thousands of people have died. But very few have stuck in my mind like Lockerbie and the costs that come from these events.

These are never easy decisions and don't think the people making them are just looking to make a buck or get some attention. Editors and reporters sweat these things. I've been in arguments with colleagues over stories and photos before. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

I say all this because while I'm not a reporter these days, I still have tremendous respect for the profession. And it always upsets me when people tarnish all reporters with the same brush. There are good ones and there are bad ones, just like most professions have good and bad people. And the decisions they have to make are harder than many. So let's cut them a bit of a break, OK...

Last Five
1. Consequences - Grapes of Wrath
2. Becky, I keep singing - Hey Rosetta
3. The lucky one (live) - Allison Krauss and Union Station*
4. Broken - Norah Jones
5. Summer girls - Blue Rodeo


colette said...

Time for my own "oh fuck no, I can't do this" moment. (Don't think I ever told you this story Craig.) I spent some time at CHMR, intending to become a journalist (way back in the mists of time when I was young and stupid). It was somewhat exciting--I was on air when the space shuttle blew up and when the Prime Minister resigned and got to say the immortal words "and now for this breaking story". Woo-hoo! "All the President's Men" time and where's my Pulitzer.

And then there was the Hinton train crash story. (Hinton, Alberta, horrific passenger train crash and fatalities.) I didn't read the entire story on the air because I couldn't and wouldn't. It was a fairly long story as radio news stories go and it came off the teletype (I said it was way back in the mists of time), so I had a printed copy easy to edit. It contained an interview with people who tried to help but ended up having to save themselves and leave the passengers behind to die in a pretty horrible manner. And it contained details of those failed rescues that family members of those who died shouldn't have had to hear and which did not advance the story one iota. I can see that teletype print-out in front of my eyes even now as I'm typing this and could quote the details.

It didn't make any difference to the news in general--the story occurred in Alberta, and no one was listening to CHMR back then (it was only broadcast in the TSC and immediate area of MUN) so this wasn't a terrific blow for journalistic integrity or anything. I just couldn't deal with that sort of stuff.

Didn't take long after that for me to decide that there was no way way I could go through that while paying my dues.

Scarlet said...

My husband was a photojournalist for the Barrie Examiner in the 80s and I remember the day he came home just fried after having to take a picture of a man who had come across his wife and child's fatal accident while driving to work. The controversy over whether to publish the shot was fought out hard and in the end the pic was published. My husband defended not only taking the picture but also the decision to publish it because he believed he was doing his job.
Personally he was a mess over it and has surely never forgotten that man's agony.
The things that make our lives easier also make them harder.

Pat the Wench said...

Quick, what photo do you think of when you hear "Vietnam War" or "napalm"? That is the power of photojournalsim.

On the other hand, I saw a video of a woman at the hospital, having a complete breakdown upon finding out that her son's gunshot wound was fatal, and have not watched that news program since ...

Seriously Frivolous said...

Many moons ago, I was a reporter, too in a big, Alberta city. I was working weekends, and one Sunday I called the cops to see if anything bad happened overnight. I will never forget the officer snapping his gum as he casually said three kids died in a crash. I got the address and dashed off, mini-player in hand.
As I was interviewing the cops on the scene, I watched the car being towed away. As the front of the car was lifted, I saw a stream of blood pour out of the rumpled sides of the car. The cop then pointed out to me to watch my step, since I was wearing sandals and standing in the blood of the dead kids. I cried the whole way back to the newsroom.
The accident killed three people in their late teens and early twenties. The next day, I got rounds of kudos and congratulations from my co-workers and editors for "bringing them to the scene".
A good friend of mine was friends with the kids who died. I let that slip in the newsroom to a trusted co-worker. It was overheard by my editor, and was bullied into getting the family on tape. I refuesed to give any information, let alone do the interview. It cost me a promotion, but I could not exploit a family grieving like that. I left journalism for good shortly after.

Rob, Tina and the boys said...

I love that you made a post about this. Initially I thought I wrote the post too quickly in "the heat of the moment" but it has received some great feedback. My opinion on this is based on the fact that I have never been in the journalism field, and can sympathize with the family. I just keep thinking "what if that was my brother in that bag?". It's a debate that can be passionately fought from both sides. Thanks for taking the time not only to share your perspective but open it up here also for comments! I love the blog world!

Mongoose said...


I never used to have an opinion either way, but having read all these anecdotes, I think y'all are wasting your time.

When I took my commercial license, the first thing we did at school was watch a movie called Red Asphalt 3 which showed a whole bunch of really gruesome traffic fatalities. One of them, the paramedic was picking up a guy's brains off the pavement and throwing the pieces into a white garbage bag.

It didn't make one lick of difference to anyone in the class. We all drive just the same we always did. So other than being traumatic to some and sensational to others, I'm not sure what any of this high-profile graphic stuff accomplishes.

Not that I think it's wrong. I just think it's pointless.