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Published: Sunday, 3/18/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Video of wrong-way crash aftermath has worth

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

There are few things more terrifying than the thought of a wrong-way driver coming at you on the freeway, especially at night.

That nightmare became real on March 2 for five sorority sisters from Bowling Green State University who were on their way to Detroit to catch an early flight to the Dominican Republic. A wrong-way driver from Perrysburg Township hit them at 2:15 a.m., head on.

Three of the young women died, as did the driver of the vehicle traveling the wrong way. Nobody complained about The Blade’s written coverage of the accident. But a number of readers were very upset when the newspaper posted on its Web site a video of the aftermath of the crash, released by the Ohio Highway Patrol.

LaShae Torres, a fellow student at BGSU, wrote that “this video is deeply offensive to all those who are still in mourning … in no way, shape or form should it be made public.”

Matthew Brenneman, another student, wrote, “The Toledo Blade should be ashamed and you or whoever put the video up also should be ashamed. This car accident does not need to be seen by anyone.” Those comments were echoed by other readers, who accused the newspaper of cheap sensationalism.

What does your ombudsman think?

Well, I can emotionally sympathize with those who are angry. Many years ago, I once had to dodge a wrong-way driver on I-75. As a young reporter, I also went to the scene of fatal auto accidents.

That’s something I never want to do again.

However, I don’t think The Blade did anything wrong here.

The portion the newspaper posted is barely two minutes long. It is in black and white; you don’t see the actual crash or any bodies.

Frankly, I found the color pictures of the wreckage of the cars more harrowing than the video clip.

But the bottom line about the video is: Nobody has to watch.

You have to make a conscious decision to go to the Internet and look at it, and nobody has to do that.

Newspapers are not supposed to be in the business of telling adults what they are allowed to see.

Nor are they supposed to cover up unpleasant reality.

Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor, who himself has a college-age daughter, wrote to one offended reader, “We as journalists have the same emotions as our readers. But our job is to inform our readers not just about the news that’s happening, but about the dangers that may confront them.”

He has a good point. The Blade’s posting was linked to a number of other posts, including David Patch’s Road Warrior blog, with what could be life-saving information about wrong-way drivers.

In my opinion, if this video ends up making just one person think twice about double-checking which way they are going late at night, posting it will have been more than worth offending a few.

“Does The Blade cover up suicides?” a caller asked me the other day. “It seems like they are never listed as the cause of death.”

Years ago, indeed, there were newspapers that did just that. Suicide was seen as a stigma, and families pleaded for it to be covered up. But that is not the policy at The Blade.

The newspaper carries death listings with the coroner’s rulings in the daily log, and includes whatever cause of death the coroner rules, such as self-inflicted gunshot wound.

However, Mr. Murray said, “We don’t write news stories about suicides unless they are public suicides, such as people who stand in front of trains or hang themselves.”

Dr. Syed Rehman, who is president of a group called Friends of Pakistan, was unhappy with a letter that ran in the Readers’ Forum March 6. The letter essentially was an attack on the Muslim religion and culture, discussing “the atrocities committed by entire Muslim nations in the name of Islamic jihad, promoting global terrorism, suicide bombings, execution of nonbelievers, mass murder, and the constant threat of genocide against their Israeli neighbors.”

Dr. Rehman was very bothered by that.

He asked, “How can The Blade publish such a letter? It’s as if The Blade is endorsing hate for Muslims.” His worry is that such a letter could incite someone, possibly a mentally disturbed person, to violence.

David Kushma, the editor of The Blade, has no use for hate speech. But he said, “I have more confidence in the ability of our readers to distinguish hyperbolic rhetoric from an assertion of indisputable fact that would cause someone to become a political murderer.” He adds, “I seriously doubt that this letter did, or could, change any reader’s attitude toward Islam.”

Your ombudsman doesn’t think The Blade should ever publish anything openly advocating violence. But while I find this letter unpleasant and absurd, the writer really doesn’t do that.

First Amendment scholars have long known that the only constitutional remedy for hate speech is more speech. Mr. Kushma added, “It seems to be that the best way to address this is for [Dr. Rehman] to write his own letter refuting the original one.”

Your ombudsman agrees.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com.

I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply.

Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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