JOURNALISTIC BALANCE

JOURNALISTIC BALANCE: how does the public “right to know” compare to “victim privacy”?

A standard rule in journalism is … no rape or sexual assault victim will be identified unless the victim chooses to have the publicity. One other exception comes into play if the victim was murdered and the sex crime is among the charges.

Now, comes the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.
Twenty 1st graders and 6 educators were killed in the December massacre.
Some parents started a petition on Change.org … asking Connecticut lawmakers to pass legislation which will block release of all crime scene photos … and 911 audio of that tragic day.
News organizations and “sunshine” groups say all evidence should be released to the public.

I am a staunch defender of the First Amendment … even when it can be abused, and while I personally see no value to publishing or broadcasting crime scene pictures of those children and their teachers — I can’t agree with the petition.

I don’t take this position lightly. In fact, I do it somewhat in fear.

IF … and I stress, IF, I knew that the pictures would be handled with proper respect, I would have little complaint or concern, but I know that once those pictures are public, they can be used to build ratings, increase subscriptions while feeding the “sick members” of the public who get some twisted pleasure.

In 5 decades of covering similar tragedies, I have seen news reporters/photographers cross the clear line of “decency” … as they feed on such events.
One case comes to mind where a young boy was struck by a car and killed in front of his home. The news crew in this case did not show the victim … didn’t even show the victim covered with a sheet, but the photographer shot some video and the station used it. So, the tv audience saw a police officer using a garden hose to wash blood off the pavement.
I was reading the story and saw the video for the first time as the audience saw it. When I saw that blood being hosed from the street, I got so angry that I pounded the desk and immediately apologized for such coverage. When the newscast was over, I went direct to the News Director and said, I don’t ever want to see that video or anything like it on our air again.

What value did that scene have to the story?
What value will pictures of the Sandy Hook shooting have?

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, favors restricted legislation which would allow law enforcement to withhold pictures unless families give written permission.
The Society of Professional Journalists and other media groups wrote to Malloy opposing his proposal. One reason cited: if documents are hidden from public, then the public has no way of knowing whether police did their jobs correctly.
I think that’s a BS argument to say the pictures of the dead children have to be provided; if you can’t tell whether police acted properly without seeing those pictures, you aren’t doing your job as a journalist. And, if you do have to see the pictures, then you don’t have to print or air them.
Another argument from media groups: this restriction would harm government transparency and set a bad precedent and would encourage other crime victims to limit disclosure of records now routinely released to the public. Those are legitimate issues, but I don’t think keeping photos of these dead children and their teachers from the public will affect either concern … as there will be plenty of other “transparency” tests and “disclosure of records” will remain a case by case decision.

Still, I have to stand by the First Amendment and go against any restriction. I have no issues with releasing the 911 calls from that day.

I just hope that the individuals behind “news organizations” would follow one simple creed: How would you want your family’s tragedy covered?

((In support of the First Amendment, I want you to know that you can join the parents’ petition. Go to Change.org. When I last checked, more than 70,000 have signed.))

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