T-G clarifies photo policy re: accident victims

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Once again: There is NOT a victim visible in the Times-Gazette photo of a truck involved in a fatal crash Monday on U.S. 231 North.

The Times-Gazette has a firm policy that we will never publish, or post online, photographs showing victims of an accident or crime.

A few people saw a part of the truck's door and dashboard, which were tan, and mistakenly thought they were seeing something else. Several T-G employees, including reporters, editors and our general manager, thoroughly looked over the photo before it left our newsroom. Believe us, the victim of this horrific wreck was not visible.

Some readers questioned whether it's necessary to publish photos -- or even stories -- of accidents and crime. We've heard this increasingly in the past few years, with reasons ranging from "it's an invasion of privacy" to "the family didn't give you permission to publish that" to "I think it's in bad taste."

We don't enjoy publishing photos of traffic accidents -- we run far fewer than we used to -- but there's a threshold at which an accident becomes of interest to the general public.

When someone is killed, it's of wide interest to citizens, which makes it newsworthy. When an accident happens on a major public road, and thousands of people (that's not an exaggeration) drive by and see it, we are obligated to report those facts to our readers.

In this fatality, add the fact that a tractor-trailer was blocking U.S. 231 a short distance from an intersection that's been in the news due to truckers turning around or backing into the highway, and it's even more newsworthy.

Though some criticize us for publishing such stories and photos, most citizens expect this information from their local newspaper as the trusted source of what officially happened. That is part of why newspapers exist.

Adding to that point, there were many people driving by this particular accident shooting photos out their windows with cell phones, and there's no telling how quickly those photos might circulate.

We make an enormous effort to get facts out quickly, but most importantly, accurately.

To further detail this point, among those driving by the crash was a woman who posted a cellphone photo onto several Facebook so-called "yard sale" sites just a short time after it occurred. One of the victim's family members found out her loved one had been killed when she recognized his truck on one of those sites.

A similar thing happened to another Shelbyville resident last year.

We do our best to try and hold off posting photos of fatal crashes for a few hours until family members have been notified. That need to wait doesn't enter the minds of many people, who post photos to Facebook and spread their unedited version of "news" as soon as they see it -- often within minutes.

Too many post information to Facebook based on rumors, or what someone "heard," or based on what they thought they saw.

Among those posting about Monday's wreck was one person who incorrectly said there were three vehicles involved and the victim was in a car. So many times we want to directly correct incorrect posts on news events, but to keep from embarrassing the poster we usually just post the correct information further down the Facebook thread -- from official sources or people we've talked to at the scene, who were actually there. Driving by without stopping is not actually being there.

David Melson covered an accident in December where someone who was comforting a seriously-injured woman misidentified her to Melson. We held off posting the name online until we were able to obtain it from an official source. Imagine how terrible it would have been for those involved if we had not waited on officials to confirm the identity.

Those examples are why, in this age of instant misinformation, we don't post online or publish until we're certain our facts are right. We prefer to rely on official sources, or people at the scene who we're sure have their facts straight.

For the sake of those involved in tragedies, it's important to think before you post.

And, also for the sake of those who have lost loved ones or who have been through personal tragedies, it's important for those stories to be covered -- correctly -- by the news media.

The alternative is for the rumor mill to go wild with incorrect facts. Believe us, you don't want that.

-- Contact editor Sadie Fowler at sfowler@t-g.com or copy editor David Melson at dmelson@t-g.com or call the newsroom at 684-1200.

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