Editors’ view: Why we posted a controversial photo

DKS Editors

A serious car accident occurred near the Crain Avenue bridge on March 16. Five seniors at Theodore Roosevelt High School were involved in a rollover while returning from their lunch break. One student was briefly trapped beneath the flipped SUV. The five students were transported to area hospitals. As with other major accidents, we quickly dispatched our photographers. Within hours, we faced a wave of criticism.

As soon as photographers returned to the newsroom, an editor quickly reviewed the photos and posted two of them to KentWired.com. One showed Kent police and fire units responding to the scene at the intersection of Crain Avenue and Lake Street.

The photo that generated criticism showed senior Zach Marlow lying on a stretcher as he was being carried into an ambulance, his face and hands bloody. Marlow was conscious and not disfigured. At the top of the page, we included a warning to our readers regarding the graphic image.

After we began receiving criticism about the photo, Stater and KentWired editors debated whether to take the photo off our website and whether to print the photo in the newspaper. We were conflicted about the privacy and dignity of Marlow and his family. All editors agreed not to publish the photo on the front page of the Stater with the story, and we had disagreements about taking it off the website. Below, we share our reasoning. Please note that because of our publication schedule and spring break, we have not had published a paper since March 17. This is our first opportunity to explain what happened in the newsroom.

From a legal standpoint, we did not violate any law. The photo was taken in a public place where people have no reasonable expectation of privacy.

From a journalistic standpoint, we believe the photo tells an important story. The image showed how rescue workers were rushing to aid the victim and how they seemed concerned for his well-being. We chose to omit the image from the Daily Kent Stater because we understood not everyone would be prepared to view it. On KentWired, however, we were able to warn readers about the graphic nature of the photo. We gave them the opportunity to decide whether to scroll down and see the image.

From an ethical standpoint, we discussed dignity and respect. We believe we did not hurt the dignity of the victim and his family. We did not sensationalize the accident by running the photo on the front page of the paper or as the main image on KentWired. We respected the victims and their families while continuing to fulfill our role as a news source in Kent by reporting events in our city.

The photo spurred an outpouring of empathy toward the victims and incited a conversation among readers that was both critical of us and supportive of Marlow.

Readers responded in several ways to the photo. A comment on KentWired read: “A big thank you to our Kent first responders, police department, and fire department for taking care of our children when it is needed the most! To the parents of Zach & Jake, my prayers and thoughts are with you and your son’s (sic).”

Another reader commented: “I am very close to Zach. This picture should NOT have been published. This is invading his and his families (sic) privacy. There should not have been anything graphic posted with this “article” and I agree whoever posted this picture should be fired.”

Another reader wrote: “I want to let you all know that arguing that this image of him is too graphic is irrelevant and useless. This tragedy will live in the lives of the witnesses, victims, friends, and family forever. There is no need for useless ranting. The concern should be for Zach and the others in the car. Most of you don’t know what he is undergoing at the moment, but I know you would never want to experience it. Just please look at the big picture and leave the photograph alone.”

We recognize that there are unfortunate, tragic and awful events that take place in life, and for news outlets, there are sure to be some graphic images of those events. Think of the images of war, of the 9/11 attacks of the victims of Hurricane Katrina and of recent earthquakes. A photo of a bloody face is on the less graphic end of the spectrum. This time it was a car accident; next time, it might be a house explosion or a street fight — all are events we are compelled to cover as a source of news and information for Kent State and the greater Kent area. People will not always agree when a decision comes down to an ethical dilemma between offending some readers, potentially upsetting a victim’s family and covering the news. In this case, we stand by the newsworthiness of the situation and our decision to run the photo.

(If you choose to see the coverage of the accident, CLICK HERE