By Peter Richmond
I’m told that a photograph from The Boston Marathon bombings was quickly circulated to news sources depicting someone with a leg blown off. I was told of the photograph of the missing leg by a friend named Lamar Graham who, as editor-in-chief of nj.com, the state’s largest news disseminator, told me that he’d refused to run it, which confirms what I’ve known for a couple of decades now: that Lamar is a great journalist.
Disaster coverage, wherein the disaster has taken and maimed human life, is, for the responsible journalist, the most horned dilemma of all. Do I do my best at what I have been hired to do — be the neon lens onto the scene, wherein the more vivid the detail, the more compelling the tale? — or do I act as the best human being I can be, wherein that lens must have filters? (That was a loaded question. Next time Lamar gives a seminar on how to run a website, I’m going to be there.)
Because here’s the thing: bad news – whether its nature is disaster or gore or geek – is not to be defined as an event to be weighed by our ability to be transfixed by it. It happened independent of our need to be fascinated by it. It has a context. And, of course, disaster and death have the hugest context of all.
This is nothing more than an open plea to any journalist in Boston over the next few days, with her or his “boots on the ground,” entrusted to bring us facts: weigh your words and images very carefully. Please.
I know whereof I speak. In July of 1982, as a reporter for the San Diego Union, in New Orleans on a sports story, I covered the crash of a plane en route to San Diego, just after takeoff, killed everyone on board. Eager and carnivoristic reporter that I was, and schooled in the “Get the story first and best!” school, with half the gaping, wounded fuselage still on fire in a field I slipped through some police tape into the field, and hooked up with a couple of coroner’s deputies planting little plastic flags in the ground where they saw evidence, and, at their side, I catalogued the severed limbs I’d seen. It was easy; as anyone who has been close to stuff like that knows: You just go into shock, as if a plastic visor is descending over your sensibilities, and become The Reporter.
I was proud of my enterprise. I filed my gruesome story, only to discover the next day that the editor had taken out all the anatomical detail. “It was too gory, hunh?” I said, over the phone, from 2,000 miles away. “No,” he said. “You don’t get it. Relatives of the victims are going to read that, and it’s going to make their loss even harder to bear. ‘Did what he described belong my brother?’ Never forget that you’re not writing to be noticed. You’re writing for people to inform them about what has happened.” Then he invoked Hippocrates’ Oath, which pertains awfully particularly at times like these: “First, Do No Harm.”
Twenty-one-and-a-half years earlier, on Dec. 16, 1960, two airliners collided over Staten Island. The TWA Super Constellation plummeted straight to the ground. No survivors. The United DC-8 limped its way toward Prospect Park in Brooklyn, with half a right wing, but came up short, crashing in Park Slope, killing all on board except a 12-year-boy who was tossed into a snowbank, to survive another 24 hours, but only after having been devoured by media, who also took detailed note of the wrapped Christmas presents scattered around the site to never be opened. My dad was on that plane, and man, did I, a seven-year-old reader of newspapers, not want to read details.