On Oct. 2, a bus heading to Statesville, N.C., collided with an SUV and a tractor-trailer on Interstate 40 in Tennessee, killing eight people. The Knoxville News Sentinel ran photos from the accident on its Oct. 3 front page and on its website. News Sentinel visuals editor Kevin Martin spoke with Poynter’s Kenny Irby about the paper’s decision to run the photos of the accident’s grisly aftermath.
How did you and the newsroom learn about the accident? What were your first response steps?
We heard about the accident on the police scanner. It occurred about 30 minutes east of Knoxville where we normally don’t hear scanner traffic. However, emergency response units from Knoxville were needed, so that’s how we found out.
Our first step was to listen more. But once we heard it was a bus we sent a photographer and reporter to the scene and assigned other reporters to work various emergency contacts. Shortly after that we decided to rent a helicopter from a nearby town for additional aerial coverage.
When did you begin to feel that you had an ethical decision-making dilemma and what was it?
We started getting reports via social media that several people were dead. Then I saw a tweeted photo of an aerial from a television helicopter. That’s when I knew there would be difficult decisions regarding fatalities.
What were two or three of your major concerns about publishing the disturbing photographs that showed bodies?
For the most part the bodies were covered with blue tarps. That was good and bad. Though they were covered, you could immediately pick out where and how many bodies were strewn across a major interstate. How much carnage do you show readers to illustrate a very significant and tragic news event? In some aerial photographs you can plainly see body parts. In other aerials, farther away, they were much more difficult to discern.
In a situation like this, you’re always concerned about how readers will react. You have to weigh the responsibility to inform and educate versus the responsibility to be tasteful and respectful.
Has the paper grappled with situations like this recently?
We did publish a photo during the summer of a man receiving life support from a first responder after a drug-related shooting.
How did you arrive a the decision to publish the lead image on your website first and then subsequently on your front page?
Like most news outlets, our news coverage philosophy is Web-first approach. Once we knew we were going to run a version of the aerial photographs in print, publishing to the Web was the next step.
Who was involved in the final decision? Can you offer some insight on your process?
There were many voices in the final decision. A handful of editors met to discuss our publication plans late in the afternoon. The first item of discussion was what photo runs on the front page. We knew that the carnage should be shown, just not to what extent. We also discussed whether to display as the dominant image the emotional impact of the accident as opposed to the accident scene.
How, if at all, did you disclose to your readers/viewer your justification for publishing what you had good reason to believe would cause some concern?
Because the photo was running on the front page, we didn’t write a disclaimer or justification. If we had run the photo inside, we talked about the idea of then running a front-page disclaimer. Ultimately we heard very little negative feedback around running the photo on the front page.
Why was it necessary to publish these photographs in the context of your coverage?
It was a horrific event that impacted many lives. Those who lost loved ones, those injured, the emergency responders, they all were affected. It was an event that stretched across two states because the majority of the deceased are from North Carolina. Multiple communities felt the effects.
What did you learn from this experience?
That no experience like this is ever the same. You should always give others a voice in the discussion when running such a graphic image.