A Project for Better Journalism chapter
Viewpoint

Journalists Should Use Care When Covering Tragic Accidents

When a University of Arkansas freshman was struck and killed in a pedestrian crosswalk by a distracted driver, reporters rushed to the scene to cover the tragedy.

Plenty of information was available – the victim’s name, age and hometown; the driver’s name, age and hometown. News organizations identified 18-year-old Andrea Torres, but did not identify the 17-year-old who was cited for distracted driving and using a cellphone while driving.

That raised an ethical dilemma presented to the Lemke Journalism Project by Professor Ray McCaffrey, director of the UA Center for Ethics in Journalism.

Some outlets did report the driver’s hometown of Little Rock and the victim’s hometown of Clarksville. At the time of the accident, some news organizations pictured the driver’s dented BMW and what appeared to be Torres’ tennis shoe and belongings strewn near the site.

On social media, comments left by donors flooded the GoFundMe account set up by her family to cover Torres’ funeral expenses.

All of this challenged reporters’ journalism ethics, calling to question sensitivity and whether it was neglected while covering the scene.

McCaffrey told LJP students that challenges are involved in covering tragic news. The First Amendment provides free speech and journalists get freedom of the press, but there is no law that tells journalists how to do their jobs.

With such freedom, however, comes great responsibility. Journalists should follow the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable.

McCaffrey said the first two points were met when reporting on the pedestrian death. He also said reporters should “be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.”

Reporters try to minimize harm while reporting on accidents of interest to the public but as a person, one should feel this ethical boundary to not suffocate someone who is dealing with death.

McCaffrey cites “The Ethical Journalist,” a book by longtime newspaper editor Gene Foreman. In it, Foreman writes that citizens need to know about crimes and accidents in order to be informed about public safety.

Tragic, fatal accidents are something the public hears about all the time, so I don’t think justifying the journalists’ actions with making the public aware of the dangers is a good reason to cross the ethical boundary of letting a family mourn.

Torres’ community’s grieving was reported by local outlets in her hometown of Clarksville. Reporters interviewed old friends and teachers from her high school. Torres was pursuing a degree in Architecture at the UofA and had dreams of opening her own architectural firm. She had a love for art, culture and life, her sister said.

“Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information,” McCaffrey said. “Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”

 

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