Last week, several readers called upon us to remove photos we had taken at the site of a homicide in Trinidad. The photos showed the covered body of the victim, which was left outside in a trailer park, under police guard, for around eight hours after medical personnel arrived at the scene and pronounced the victim deceased.
We declined to remove the photos, because – as indicated by our publication of them in the first place – we judged that their importance as news outweighed the grief they might cause some people.
This isn’t to say that we were right to do so, and it is not to say that we were wrong to do so, or that there exists an objective way to judge between the two. There is no final authority – no codified set of rules – that you can check against any particular decision made in a newsroom. Ethical quandaries in media are no more simple or clearcut than ethical quandaries in life at large, and anyone who tells you otherwise is telling you a falsehood. We’re all swimming around in a big gray sea, and the best that honest people can do is to do the best that they can.
In that spirit, and now that things have cooled down a bit, we thought it might be important – or at least interesting – to analyze this particular case a little bit, to show you what went into our thinking by publishing this photo, and by declining to take it down when some people requested us to do so.
The first thing to note is that we do not take such requests or critiques lightly, and we do – often and regularly – withhold information because releasing it would do harm to particular people. For instance: In this case, we knew the victim’s name a few hours before it was released by the coroner, but we did not publish it. We respect the idea that no one wants to learn of a loved one’s death on the Internet, or from any media source, and so we always wait until law enforcement officially releases the name of the deceased, so that family members can be notified personally. The community at large can wait.
In this case, then, the balance, in our minds, tilts to privacy over reporting the news, despite the fact that “reporting the news” would be the first item in our (unwritten) mission statement. Not everything need be written up and published, and some things that should be written up and published don’t have to be written up and published right this minute.
But we believed and continue to believe that the pictures in question were important to the community – to its understanding of what happened that morning – and that their importance outweighed the desire of some people to have them scrubbed from the record.
The photos we took at the scene – in the presence of a family member who knows the reporter – are not graphic or detailed. By that I mean: The victim in the case cannot be identified in them. The identity of the victim could not even be guessed at. But the photos are startling. They depict the aftermath of a violent crime.
They were newsworthy not only in a general sense — not only because they show what happens in the aftermath of a violent crime, how our police agencies and emergency personnel respond to such an event — but because of the details of this particular incident and how it unfolded. In this case, the victim was left where he fell for eight solid hours. As we reported, residents of the park were upset by this fact. More than one child passed by it that morning, and were left to spend their day confronted with the results of violence just feet from their own homes.
To not report that would be to leave Humboldt County with an incomplete, sanitized version of a big part of what was happening — the scene that it caused among residents of the park and of the greater Trinidad community. This would not be as effectively told with words alone; in general, reporters strive to document their sources of information (as they should). Since the victim was covered up in the photos — only a shoe was visible — we did not believe that any potential trauma to loved ones outweighed the public’s right to know what was happening in Trinidad that morning.
(A side note: When forensic examiners did arrive later in the morning, there came a point when the body was uncovered. Police asked the media present to not take images during this, and of course the Outpost — along with the Times-Standard and News Channel 3 — complied with that request.)
Many, many news stories aggrieve particular people and their loved ones, and our regular, direct contact with our readership has given us an appreciation for the absolutely laudable desire of others to rally for the afflicted when disaster strikes. If one such person, motivated by noble aims, believes that they can help by attempting to shield the world from saddening images or stories, then we do not take issue with that, and they may speak their mind freely on our site. (Not under unrelated stories, please.)
To repeat, though: We believe that we were serving the community by publishing the pictures in question. But we also recognize that we are not infallible, and apart from some very specific matters of media law there is no ultimate authority to appeal to on the question of whether something should be published or whether it should not be. You can argue that we should not publish this item or that – or this picture or that – and we may think differently, but that does not make either of us right or wrong. There is a difference of opinion.
The Lost Coast Outpost works for its readers and our community, however, and we are always persuadable. You might not believe it if the freewheeling discourse of our comment section were the only thing to go by, but the best thing to do if you take issue with what we do here is to make your best case, and to ground it in principle. We strive to serve our community to the best of our abilities and to the limit of the resources we have at hand. If you have serious thoughts about how we might do that better, then we always – always – want to hear them.