“Disgusting” and “slimy” typify the hits the Herald-Press took on Facebook last week, including calls for a newspaper boycott, after we posted an online photo of a wrecked 2004 Chevrolet Tahoe.
The vehicle had collided with an 18-wheel truck on Highway 19, taking the life of Rebecca Lynne Burke, 61, of Elkhart.
Usually I ignore reader backlash, especially in a tragedy. People are understandably angry, and anger can help them cope with grief.
Moreover, verbal, and even physical, assaults come with the job. If I can't take them, I should have trimmed trees for a living in sub-zero weather like my dad did.
This is no job for people with thin skins. Some of the shots media take, including newspapers, are on point. We demand accountability from others. We should hold ourselves to similar standards. Typos, factual errors, lapses in taste, sloppy writing and grammar are all fair game.
Other times, however, people vilify reporters simply for doing their tough and sometimes sordid jobs.
Contrary to popular opinion, we don't report stories to “sell newspapers.” I never knew a reporter yet who could care less about selling newspapers. That's what circulation managers and publishers are for.
Everyone, including journalists, have felt the heartache of losing loved ones. They aren't out to make it worse for others. Reporters don't like intruding on people's privacy, or circulating accident scenes like vultures.
They suck it up and do it because reporting news is their job.
And in small towns like Palestine or Elkhart, a fatal wreck is news. It matters. It needs to be recognized and time-stamped for posterity. Trust me, readers hammer us if we miss those stories.
Sometimes, victims find talking to reporters cathartic. Sometimes, good things come from bad stories.
A story on a house fire, for example, may inspire strangers to donate money and time to help a suddenly homeless family.
Mostly, though, getting the story, and getting it right, is the only satisfaction reporters get.
Today more than ever, photos and videos are part of the story. Decisions to run them aren't taken lightly. In the most extreme cases, we can agonize for hours over what to do with them.
The photo of the totaled vehicle we ran online last week was a pretty easy call. It helped explain what happened – without showing bodies, blood, or any sign of human trauma.
The photo also was a sober reminder that, when we drive a ton of steel down the highway, we're not sitting safely in our living rooms, even if it feels that way.
And let's clear this up: Local television and other media didn't withhold photos or video of the accident scene out of respect for the family. They didn't run them because they didn't have them. In the parlance of this ruthlessly competitive business, they got beat.
We got the photo because Herald-Press reporter William Patrick got it from a first-responder he knew.
If you don't think people want to see that sort of thing, watch drivers slow down and gawk at a roadside accident.
We made no attempt to sensationalize this tragic accident. On Jan. 25, we posted the photo and a sketchy story, without even a name.
A half-hour later, I received a call from a family member. She said the woman's grandchildren had not yet been notified and the online photo would traumatize them.
I pointed out the story had no name; the car was practically unrecognizable. She said the grandchildren would recognize it.
I was sorry for the woman's loss and told her so several times. I did not, however, feel a moral or ethical obligation to remove the photo. Still, after thinking about it for a few minutes, I decided to take it down, until I got word the family was notified.
The photo stayed down for several hours, until the late afternoon, when the Department of Public Safety told us the immediate family was notified. I told Patrick to update the online story and repost the photo.
For the print edition, we used a photo of the 18-wheeler, instead of the victim's vehicle.
I handled this conundrum the best I could. I'm still adjusting to the different standards of an urban paper like the Detroit Free-Press and a small-town paper like the Herald-Press.
Still, we did more than we had to, and more than most media outlets would have done.
All in all, I think we acted responsibly. You're free to disagree.
We're ordinary people, just like you, trying to do an extraordinary job.