CITY EDITOR - Walking the fine line with sensitive photos

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At their best, newspapers are a window to their communities.

Through the pages, you can see the best and worst of a place and its people. But you can't have a good newspaper if you focus only on the good or only on the bad.

And sometimes, showing people bad things that happen in the community can be very unpopular.

Last Wednesday, our coverage of a traffic crash at First Avenue and Chestnut Street included a story and two photos on the front page.

One of the photos, the smaller one at the bottom of the page, showed the trapped driver suspended upside down in her car waiting for rescue workers to extricate her.

In the days since, a substantial number of you have called, written or left comments online criticizing our decision to include that photo in our coverage. A smaller number of responses support the decision.

If you're among those upset by our coverage, a rational explanation of why and how we used the photo is unlikely to appease you. To you, I can only say that we do appreciate your point of view and understand why you feel the way you do.

That said, I do think an explanation is in order, especially considering how rarely something this graphic actually makes it into the newspaper.

The crash was unusual and newsworthy: It was a rollover at midday in a residential area. Rescue workers had to extricate the driver, who was injured and trapped.

Words, however powerful, do not convey the reality of crashes like these in the way photos do. At a glance, you can relate to the situation in a visceral way that reading a fact-by-fact account does not afford. But at the same time, this kind of imagery -- in which someone is in a vulnerable and powerless position -- can be very disturbing.

In last Wednesday's case, we chose to use a less personal photo as the dominant image, to illustrate the overall crash scene.

The photo of the driver was printed at a size that would convey the reality of the situation without being so large as to be used solely for shock value. Without that photo, the gravity of traumatic car crashes would be lost.

We knew that publishing the photo would cause discomfort with some of our readers. That was not the reason for using it, but an unhappy reality of doing our jobs, which is to show you, as best as we can, the truth.

Alasdair Stewart can be reached at alasdairstewart@wwub.com or 526-8311.

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