Thursday, June 5, 2008

Covering the ugly stuff

I cringe when the sirens go off, when I get the report of an accident on the highways around Sisters.

It means someone is likely hurt, possibly critically. And in this small town, it’s all too possible that it’s someone I know. (Like it or not, we are all touched more immediately when tragedy befalls someone close).

Last Monday, I came upon the wreck at the intersection of Highway 20 and Barclay Drive as I was driving my daughter to school. I pulled off the side of the road, grabbed my camera, got out of the truck and started taking pictures.

That’s my job.

A man at the scene — a man I know — approached me and berated me for being there and taking pictures. He said it was “sick” to do so, that he knew the people, that they weren’t even out of their cars.

I understood where he was coming from. I’ve been in his shoes. And I told him so. I also told him that the accident was news and it was my job to cover it and that I was going to do so. I also assured him that The Nugget wasn’t going to run photos that exploited the pain and fear of his friends.

A short time later, the man apologized for his angry reaction and we had a good conversation about the dangers of that intersection and what might be done to fix it.

That kind of thing goes with being in “the media.” You learn not to take it personally. And it keeps you on your toes. Where is the line between legitimate reporting and exploitation?

A good friend and I had a conversation some years back about coverage of accidents. She asked why we couldn’t just write about it, why there had to be pictures, images that were upsetting and painful to see. (She also admitted that they were only upsetting and painful when she knew the people in the wreck — an important point).

It’s a valid question. The answer is close to a cliché; an image has a lot more impact than a written description.
But still, is it necessary? Does it serve some valid public purpose?

What I told my friend, and what I continue to believe, is that such images brand themselves on our consciousness in ways prose descriptions cannot. And they can change what we do.

I have seen somewhere around a dozen traffic deaths and many injuries. I drive differently because of them. I approach the Aspen Lakes curve and the Suttle Lake curve with great caution because I’ve seen death there. I approach that nasty intersection assuming someone is going to pull in front of me because I’ve seen the results of just that action.

Even photos taken by other reporters have that effect. I can still see the wreckage of Steve Swisher’s pickup truck in a photo taken by another reporter. And I won’t pass a turning vehicle on the right because I remember what happened to Swisher.
I have drummed into my wife and constantly remind myself that if you drift off the right side of the highway, keep going. Overcorrect and you’ll roll or shoot into the oncoming lane.

I know this because I’ve seen it, over and over again.

My job is to let you see it, too. It’s not pretty and it’s not fun, but maybe it does a little bit of good.

Jim Cornelius, Editor

1 comment:

  1. The intersection of Highway 20 and Barclay Drive would be much safer if the speed limit was reduced further before cars coming into town arrived at that point. A light wouldn't hurt either, but a speed limit change would only cost the taxpayers a few thousand, instead of a few hundred thousand.

    Also, it would be refreshing if people would follow the posted speed limits and obey ALL of the traffic laws. Passing a left-turning car on the right. Not only is it dumb, but against the law.

    SLow it down, use your blinkers, and be smart people. Be an example to our younger drivers. It's a public safety issue.