Messenger role has downsides



March 4, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Saturday morning the area lost a warm and loving young mother and wife in a tragic car accident.
Pam Hutton lost control of her car on an icy bridge and was hit by an oncoming truck. By all reports, she died instantly.
The Register ran a picture of Hutton’s demolished car on the front page. The picture added even more grief to Hutton’s devastated family.
“I realize you have the right to publish anything you choose,” wrote Roxanne Hutton, Iola city clerk and Pam Hutton’s sister-in-law, “however I must ask of you did putting that picture on the front page of the paper constitute news?” The picture, Roxanne said, “was more than a person should have to take,” and “I just ask you to remember behind every story of a death there is a family trying to come to grips with the loss.”
I also heard from another member of the Hutton family criticizing us for running the picture. In retribution, he canceled his advertising with the paper.

BEFORE WE RAN the picture we all did some soul-searching.
What is the role of a community newspaper, we asked, and that of journalism in a broader scope.
The picture of Hutton’s demolished car made us cringe, knowing that it must have been a horrific moment.
It also made us realize the dangers of glare ice and how roads over bridges are the first to freeze.
What happens to our local people, especially, is news — be it good or bad. Illustrating that news is part and parcel of journalism.
Keeping to only warm and fuzzy photographs of cute kittens and homecoming queens runs counter to our purpose.
And while we’re more than happy to snap a picture of that crowning moment, we’re also obligated to depict life’s disasters.
House fires, plane crashes, the devastation left by a tornado or flood, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rioting in Libya — all of which can involve loss of life — are captured on camera and published as news.
As a profession, journalism has had reason to hang its head. Starting in the 1890s, the term “yellow journalism” got bandied about because major newspapers sensationalized news with 80-point headlines and stories based on little more than hearsay and speculation.
I don’t know that my great-grandfather ever stooped so low as to hang out one’s dirty laundry to garner sales. The most infamous muckrakers were Randolph Hearst and his San Francisco Examiner and Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World.
That inglorious past still haunts journalists today. We bend over backward to get facts straight, to double-check our sources, and do our best to portray the truth.
The Vietnam War served as another epiphany for journalists and their role in bringing its horrors, through stories and pictures, into “the comfort of the living room,” said Marshall Mc-Luhan, noted media analyst.
Television news, especially, was a crucial factor in turning public opinion against the war. Seeing mangled bodies night after night made Americans question the government’s contention that we were winning the war in fine fashion.

THIS PERHAPS is a long way to say to the Hutton family that the Register is sorry for their pain, and that we’re sorry if we added to it, but that as a source of the news of Iola — and of Iola’s families  — we feel committed to reporting the good, the bad, and the painful.

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