Let’s start the debate with a story:
Once upon a time, long, long ago, I stood ankle-deep in crusty snow along a riverbank, shivering, and not necessarily from the midwinter chill. Clutching a camera and a reporter’s notebook, I stared with a mixture of professional detachment and heart-pounding horror while firemen in a rowboat jabbed a hook and cable beneath the frigid, oddly bubbling water. One of the firemen, desperate, shed his kit and dove over the side in shirtsleeves. He found his objective on the second try, and he would spend the rest of the day in the hospital for it.
A winch on the shore began to turn, and the cable grew taut. Something beneath the water stirred, then broke the surface: a four-door sedan. It had been underwater for as long as 45 minutes—with two children trapped inside.
As the car neared the riverbank, more firemen swarmed around it. I found a good position, out of the frenzy but close enough to see what was happening. I brought my camera up as the rescuers opened a rear door and reached inside.
I could have taken a picture of the limp figures they cradled. But I didn’t. Instead, I deliberately waited until a couple of the firemen partially blocked my view, then began snapping photos.
The children were rushed to a waiting ambulance and whisked away. I ran to my car and roared off, headed back to the newsroom. Hours later, my short article and that obscured photo topped the front page.
The story would play out over several days in many news outlets, including my own. Astonishingly, the children survived due to the near-freezing water temperature, though they would suffer severe after-effects. As the kids fought for survival, persistent reporters tried—and failed—to get any comment from the family.
I took a different tack. I covered the rescuers, the ER responders, and the science of how the children survived. I left the family alone, with one exception. Turns out my eldest child and the two rescued children shared a babysitter, through whom I left a message for the mother: If you want to talk, I’m here. But I won’t pursue it until you’re ready.
A few days later, I was the first reporter she spoke with.
I suspect many of my journalist friends, then and now, would criticize me for those choices. The photo wasn’t taken from the best vantage point. I didn’t push hard to get that important family perspective sooner. What if the reporters pinging the family—at least one staked out the hospital—had squeezed a quote out of them? What if my editor had been dissatisfied with my decision on the photo? Indeed, when I submitted that shot to The Associated Press, the newswire chose a less sensitive one by a competing reporter. (Still, the AP awarded me a citation for the effort.)
But here’s the thing: I’ve never regretted my decisions. I did what I felt was right, balancing the public’s right to know with empathy for the family’s horror and grief.
What brought all this back to me was a recent article in my hometown paper on a two-car crash that killed a teenage driver and seriously wounded two passengers. One of the passengers and her family agreed to speak with a reporter about what happened and the emotions they were feeling.
Personally, I felt the reporter did a good job striking that journalism-and-empathy balance. A few of the online commenters didn’t. “Let’s not sensationalize this tragedy,” said one. “Terrible story, prying for all involved,” carped another.
I’m glad to say most commenters defended the reporter. But it does raise that question with no answer. Where’s the balance?
Maybe it’s good that there’s no simple rule of thumb, because it forces true journalists to keep asking that question of themselves: Am I operating with integrity as a reporter and as a human being?
Sadly, for every journalist who strikes that balance, there’s the “Nightcrawler” type who takes the old if-it-bleeds-it-leads axiom to the extreme, and damn the people who get in the way. It doesn’t help that many readers and viewers out there are just as eager to embrace the salacious, the gory, the life-destroying tale.
Were that the journalistic standard demanded of me back in the day, I would have failed to meet it. In that recent hometown article, I was glad to see a standard met for being relevant, informative, sensitive and human.