We’re humans first and journalists second: When “giving context” goes too far

 

I was glued to Twitter yesterday as reports emerged about Frank de Leon Compres’ tragic death. He was an aviation student who lost his life after he crash-landed in Hyrum, which officials assume is an accident.

I was hungry for answers as to why this kid, who was an exceptionally good guy, passed away. That’s when I came across The Herald Journal’s picture of the plane crash. The photo showed parts of the airplane strewn about along with pieces of Frank’s body. Gruesome. (I genuinely suggest you do not look up the picture, it’s horrifying.)

My heart stopped. The Herald Journal would never run anything like that. Never. Right? They are the small-town paper that’s above using shocking photos for their own gain. Right? It must have been an accident…

I immediately called my friend, an editor at The Herald Journal. They probably just ran the picture on accident. If I published something like that on accident, I would expect my fellow reporters to help me out. I thought The Herald Journal was above posting photos like that.

The editor picked up. “Hey, man,” I said. “I was wondering if you know that one of your pictures for the aviation death story shows images of Frank’s body.”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “We know.”

He said The Herald Journal newsroom came to the heavy decision to run that picture after much deliberation. He defended posting the photo saying that it’s not very often The Herald Journal has a chance to “show context” like that. Besides, they would never to run the image in the morning paper or as the first image on the website.

My mouth went dry as I politely finished the conversation and hung up.

This is what I should have said:

Showing context is a powerful journalistic tool that should be used sparingly, especially when it comes to photos and videos. It’s OK to run the images of Alan Kurdi’s body that washed ashore because it reminds people that there are families behind the immigration crisis. It’s OK to publish photos of Nazi concentration camps because it shows the lives that were destroyed by racism. It’s OK to run bloody images of 9/11 because it shows the horror of radical religiosity. Those terrible images tell stories and and incite change.

But running a photo of someone’s mangled body who died because of an accident doesn’t tell a story about or give context to Frank’s life, death or legacy. It just crosses the line to sensationalism.

As journalists, we are the curators of information. But most importantly, we’re humans first. Sometimes we forget that.


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  1. Steve Kent

    Hi there. I’m Steve Kent, the friend Morgan referenced in the article, city editor at The Herald Journal and the person who decided to run the photo. I’m sorry if the photo has complicated or compounded anyone’s grieving process.

    In the interest of accuracy and transparency, here are some other factors that influenced my decision to run the photo, some of which are apparent from the photo, and many of which I related to Morgan over the phone:

    — I feel that Morgan’s characterization of the photo is, itself, a little sensationalistic. The photograph does not show “pieces of Frank’s body.” It shows his knee, in a very small part of the photograph. It does not show blood. It does not show mangling. Yes, it’s a horrifying photo, but it was not our intent to distract anyone from the horrifying tragedy of Frank’s death by showing a small part of his body.

    — That photograph was one of the earliest we had of the crash. We had two photographers closing in on the location in a search that took responders more than two hours. The photographers reached the site from opposite directions, and terrain severely limited the angles from which he could shoot. He did his best under those conditions to take a photo that would tell the story.

    — I didn’t say that The Herald Journal “would never to run the image in the morning paper or as the first image on the website,” because as I stated before, we did in fact run it as the first image on the website for a few hours. What I told Morgan was that we weren’t going to run the photo in the print edition, and now that we had additional images to choose from, that photo was no longer the first image online.

    — I made the decision to run the photograph, and I didn’t do it out of a desire to sensationalize the story. A plane crashed. In Cache Valley. That’s a story that needs no sensationalizing. In fact, we’ve received a lot of criticism and complaints about my decision, with one subscriber going so far as to threaten to cancel. I understood that we’d draw criticism for breaking our society’s unwritten rule that we should never show bodies, blood or pieces of bodies in stories from the U.S., and now it’s our turn to accept that criticism. I made a judgment call in the moment and in the interest of reporting the news, and we stand by that decision.

    — I also remarked to Morgan that another unfortunate consequence of my decision was that for some people, the photo turned the conversation from Frank de Leon Compres’ death to the coverage of his death. As a journalist, I’ve seen grief manifest itself in a lot of ways, and it’s easy to get sidetracked by anger. It’s a natural part of the grieving process, and I apologize and sincerely hope that anyone angered by my actions will find solace and a healthy resolution to that process.

    My office number is (435)792-7223. If anybody would like to give me a call and vent their frustration and anger, I’ll be here.

  2. Logan J

    I actually agree with all of this, but I can also think of a certain controversial photo the Statesman printed under similar cicumstances (a tragic death of a student) that ended up being a powerful piece of journalism. It’s a challenge to find where that line to sensationalism is.

  3. Wendy Files

    Great article! 19 years ago yesterday my dad was killed in a work related accident where a tractor he we loading fell over and crushed him. This happened in Lovell WY and The Lea cell Chronicle decided to publish pictures of the responders trying and his boss gettingthe tractor off of him. What makes this especially horrible is all of the fire fighters were or like family. My dad had just called my 14 year old sister to cone and get him and while she was on her way the accident happened and she is the one who found him. The editor of the paper knew all of this history and imagine our shock when we opened up the paper that Thursday morning. There is no journalistic integrity, common decency, or compassion for the families in these acts. Only greed and desire to show these types of shock pictures. My condolences go out to this young man’s family and friends.


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