A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

25 February 2017

Most traffic accident news photographs have little or no social value

Commercial television remains notorious for its if it bleeds, it leads, news reports. And the more bleeding and mangled metal, the better for television ratings. “Deadly crash at Children’s Park. Many dead, much blood. Film at eleven.” And in the age of social media, the announcer can add, “Sneak preview images now on KRAP TV’s Facebook page.”

The names of the dead and injured usually yare withheld until the next of kin has been notified, but titillatingly gory photographs are published almost immediately even if they contain information that could identify the victims. Not surprisingly, sometimes someone learns of a family member’s violent death not from a policeman at the door, or even on the telephone, but from seeing a photograph of the fatal wreck.

That kind of “journalism” may build circulation or viewership, but it does not provide a positive service to the community.

Two years ago, following an event in Western Montana, I wrote:

A photograph of a wrecked automobile, especially if it’s a tightly cropped image that omits the visual context, provides little or no useful information for the reader.

If we’re reading on the internet, listening to the radio, or watching television, receiving the news in near realtime, we want to know:

  1. Where the accident occurred;
  2. Whether there were injuries or deaths;
  3. Whether the road is blocked (if so, for how long); and
  4. Whether there were contributing factors that could affect drivers taking the same route soon.

Later we’ll learn the names of the victims, the results of the investigations, and legal consequences (if any). A reporter need not be at the accident scene to obtain that information, although being there does provide an opportunity to interview witnesses and officials.

But a photograph of a mangled door and broken windshield, or of blood pooled on the pavement, doesn’t improve our understanding of the accident. It’s a lazy form of photojournalism.

A new approach is needed.

If a photograph of the accident scene is really needed for a news story — a need of which I’m skeptical — a panoramic image of the wreck taken from a point 25 feet above the ground could provide a visual context by showing the position of the cars on the road and the road and scenery. It could be obtained by a photojournalist with a drone who was willing to get arrested and charged with all kinds of serious offenses. But it could also be obtained without fuss or arrest by placing a point-and-shoot camera with HD video on a 20-foot pole and rotating it above the accident scene.

That panorama, published with a map from Google Earth, would be much more useful to the reader than a “if it bleeds, it leads” tabloid image of the Arthur Fellig genre. It would be even more useful if the map displayed icons identifying previous wrecks at the same spot (done rather easily if all wrecks in Montana were geo-referenced, coded for cause and details, and available through an online GIS database).

Persuading Montana’s news media to retire if it bleeds, it leads, won’t be easy. It requires citizens, community leaders, and advertisers, working with journalists, editors, producers, and publishers, to create a market for non-sensational coverage of most violent events. But that’s the responsible approach to dealing with the problem.

The irresponsible approach — Rep. Amanda Curtis’ approach — is trying to pass unconstitutional legislation (HB-553) to restrict what stories and images news media can publish, and when.

The Daily InterLake’s Sam Wilson reports Curtis is not contrite about her attack on freedom of the press:

While Curtis noted that her proposal would extend into a legal “gray area” pitting constitutional protections for the press against an individual’s rights to privacy, she urged the House panel to support the bill as common-sense policy, and leave the courts to decide on its constitutionality.

A gray area? That’s a self-deluding fiction. There’s no gray area, just the Butte legislator’s cynical and irresponsible grandstanding, and willingness to sacrifice constitutional rights on the altar of political expediency.