Crash photo led to 'What's news?' debate
March 19, 2017
As publisher, I’m ultimately responsible for all aspects of the newspaper. That includes making decisions that will sometimes upset people.
It’s unfortunate and I certainly don’t take any pleasure in it. But as they say, it’s the nature of the beast. You often have to have thick skin to be in this industry.
Newspapers, like so many other businesses, will never make everyone happy all of the time. We get second-guessed occasionally, and we take potshots from people — especially from folks who love to squawk from their personal pulpit known as Facebook.
A debate ensued — mostly in social media — over our decision to publish a photo from the scene of Tuesday’s crash of the Cannon Air Force Base plane. The U-28 aircraft went down near Clovis Municipal Airport, resulting in the death of all three airmen on board.
Condolences to the family and friends of 1st Lt. Frederick “Drew” Dellecker, Capt. Kenneth Dalga and Capt. Andrew Becker, who were the Cannon personnel who had their young lives, sadly, cut short during the training exercise.
The photo in question was taken by Clovis resident Rebecca Boyles, who happened to come upon the scene with her husband. They saw firetrucks and went to see what the commotion was about. They were a considerable distance from the scene and didn’t impede any of the emergency personnel onsite or those arriving to help.
When she took the photo with her cell phone, she didn’t know it was a military plane. She posted the photo on her Facebook page and then shared it with us at The Eastern New Mexico News.
We used the photo with the story on our website that continued to get updated Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning as more information was disseminated. We also used the image as the main art on page 1 of Wednesday’s edition.
Our longtime editor David Stevens and I discussed the use of the image before it was published by us. The decision to use it was simple — and that isn’t meant to sound callous in any way.
It showed the crash debris and the fuselage of the plane. It didn’t show victims or anything that would be categorized as gory. The tail markings on the aircraft could not be seen. It was basically an overall depiction of the scene.
It was news. That’s our job, despite the handful of Facebook posters who thought differently.
Ultimately, dozens — if not hundreds — of media outlets ran photos of the crash scene last week. We happened to be first and caught the wrath of some.
We were wrongly accused of potentially informing the victim’s families that they had died in the crash. There was nothing in the photo that possibly could have done that.
We were called “disgusting” and “insensitive.” Others cried that photos aren’t news and that images like this should never be included in coverage because it was “possibly the scene of a death.”
Under that premise, no media outlets would have published photos of the killings at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were gunned down. To take it a step further, those same Facebook posters would have wanted all the images from the Sept. 11 attacks kept under wraps because people perished there as well. There are innumerable examples that can be cited.
Photos have and always will be a part of news coverage. If we weren’t gathering photos of events like this, we wouldn’t be doing the job you entrust us to do as a community newspaper. Trust me, we do it with compassion.
There were many more commenters, however, who backed our decision and realized that it was part of our business. I came across one interesting post from Keith Pannell, who previously was a military writer at our newspaper in the early 2000s and is now the chief of media relations for the Public Affairs Office at Fort Sill Army post in Oklahoma.
He teaches a media training class and shares the following with his students: “You may not want the media at your door, but you damned sure want to know why they’re at your neighbor’s door.”
Like it or not, it’s human nature.
Rob Langrell is the publisher of The Eastern New Mexico News. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org