Shortly after I took my current job, there was a horrific accident in which a teenage driver was trapped in her burning Volkswagen Beetle. Lois Henry, a young reporter recently hired by the Bakersfield Californian, happened upon the scene within moments of the crash. She, along with other motorists, helplessly watched the poor girl’s agonizing death.
Unlike the others, though, and being a well-trained reporter, Henry broke out her pad, took careful notes, began interviewing witnesses and emergency personnel, and called for a photographer. Her powerfully written front-page story the next day, with photo, described in graphic detail the girl’s final moments. The story also incited a high number of complaints, most of which voiced displeasure at being confronted with something so graphic over their morning Cheerios. Others worried about the harm caused to the girl’s loved ones.
Henry, now an assistant managing editor for the Californian, was coincidentally scheduled to talk to my media ethics course a few weeks later. No surprise, much of the conversation centered on the accident story. She was quite proud of her reporting, of her ability to set aside her own emotional response to accurately convey the scene’s horror.
Most of the students focused on the “yuck” factor, on how distasteful the coverage was, along with fears of added harm to the family. Henry was appreciative of both concerns but gave the two standard journalistic answers: the deontological, “we have the right to cover and the public has a right to know,” and the consequentialist, “if this story motivated even one driver to be more careful, then those harms are well-justified.”1