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A picture can tell a story

Much attention, of late, has been focused on the tragic school bus accident involving the death of a toddler in Columbia County and the ensuing aftermath.

But it was the picture of the toddler's grieving father on the front page of The Augusta Chronicle that focused the attention surrounding the accident squarely on the media's role in covering such a tragedy.

Being a member of the media - charged with covering such events - as well as being part of a family that has experienced similar heartbreak, I have conflicting views on what is appropriate.

The media's responsibility is to inform the public of important events. As The Chronicle's Executive Editor Dennis Sodomka wrote in a column about the picture, it made everyone consider the family's grief as not so much news but more of a horrible human tragedy.

Like the old adage about a picture says, J. Scott Trubey's photograph told the story much better than any number of words could do. While it was gut-wrenching to view, I feel it was an appropriate photograph to place with the article, and when I spoke to the photographer last week, I told him so.

That picture is the kind that wins awards. It's the kind of picture that runs in newspapers across the country and on the internet on a regular basis.

So why are people up in arms about this particular picture? People around here don't like it because they live down the road from the subject of the photo. The child's father is someone with which the viewer can closely identify.

But what about when the photo is of someone vastly different? There are well-known photos of Iraqi mothers grieving after the loss of family members to a bomb. Where were all the complaints when newspapers print those? The complaints never come because those pictures weren't taken in "my back yard."

Those complaining should simply imagine what picture could have run. The front page of The Chronicle might have featured a photograph of a white sheet covering the child's lifeless body under the wheels of the bus, but it didn't.

In my opinion, that kind of photograph would have been inappropriate, even for a large daily newspaper. And it certainly shouldn't see the light of day in a community newspaper.

So let's boil today's media lesson down to a summary here. Pictures of reaction to a tragic death make for good journalism. Pictures of the tragic death itself make for distasteful journalism.

I know it's a fine line to walk, but it's certainly one that needs to be defined and one that I plan never to cross.

Web posted on Thursday, March 29, 2007

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