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.