At one time newspaper folks made their decisions on what to cover and how to cover it with a minimum of nods to the most important voices in their communities, the readers, without whom newspapers cannot exist.
Even when journalistic standards and practices followed in a given situation are unquestionably justified, the voices of readers count. They help us to make better decisions in future situations.
Today, readers are not just subscribers or people who pick up individual copies. Articles from any newspaper with a website are shared across multiple social media platforms. Plenty of eyes are on everything we write. That means people who disagree with what we do have multiple forums for expressing their views.
Some views were shared on various Facebook sites last week, shortly after we ran a story of exceptional heroism amid an event of exceptional sorrow. An updated version of that story runs in this current issue.
At the time we first looked into what appeared a newsworthy occurrence, all we knew was that a vehicle was in Little Bayou Black near Barataria Boulevard and that people were in the water. Using our contacts and knowhow, we began assembling enough information to determine what was going on. Not much could be learned at first because rescuers were still operating at the scene and we certainly were not going to try and interrupt them. Finally, we learned that indeed a vehicle had gone into the bayou, and that firefighters had tried mightily to extricate its driver, who was trapped inside. We learned through another source that the effort was, sadly, for naught. The vehicle was removed from the water, and the driver removed from the vehicle. Subsequent to that occurring, a Times staffer was near the scene. As first responders continued working at the scene a photo was taken which included the truck, mangled when it struck another vehicle on La. 311 before it ended up in the bayou. That photo accompanied the story when it was placed online as breaking news.
Shortly after that, people who read the story and saw the photo expressed concerns about its taste or propriety.
The photo, some people said, should not have been run so soon after the event. Doing so, they said, was disrespectful to the family of the deceased. In one case, someone said the wreck and the retrieval were “nobody’s business.”
Prior to this photo running it was carefully reviewed, to make sure that there was nothing untoward. It was not until after the initial story ran, which focused on the attempted rescue, that we learned the identity of the driver, who was a 16-yeare-old Terrebonne High student loved deeply by family and friends. Even if we had that information, it is likely that the photo would have still run. The wreck occurred in a very public place and the recovery of the truck viewed by many people, some of whom posted like photos on social media much sooner than we had while following our vetting process.
Our commitment to readers is to inform, and to reveal facts, even sad ones, rather than conceal. The photo of this truck, like photos that run in newspapers throughout the world or video images broadcast live on television, conveys in a way words cannot the violence that can result from a single moment’s decision. In this case, as we learned, the fateful decision was likely that of the driver of another pickup to proceed onto La. 311 after stopping at the intersection, likely too soon.
The closer to a person who ends up in the news due to tragedy the greater their belief, or the beliefs of those close to them, that public scrutiny is undesirable and should not occur. That doesn’t affect the mission to present truth to the greater community at large. At the same time, we are saddened that this tragedy occurred. It is our hope that the scope of it will, through our story, be shared with confirmed facts to a broad enough audience that the prayers and sympathy of many are added to those who were so sorely affected. And while we stand by the decision we made, we are also grateful for the views people shared. We are always seeking to improve what we do, and always take into account when making difficult decisions the opinions readers express about what we have done in the past.