Friday, August 12, 2022
Aug. 12, 2022

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From the Newsroom: When is a video appropriate?

By , Columbian Editor

There are some great newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, including The Oregonian. It’s my habit to look at it regularly.

One of my must-reads is Editor Therese Bottomly’s weekly column. She discusses a lot of the same topics around journalism and running the newsroom that I like to tell you about. Although our situations are different, sometimes we end up confronting the same issues.

That was the case this week. On Sunday, she wrote about the difficult decision about publishing sensitive photos, and on Monday, the same issue arose here.

The Oregonian’s photo, which it published, showed the aftermath of a police shooting in December along Interstate 5 in North Portland. It involved a gunman who had carjacked multiple vehicles and was driving the wrong way on the freeway when police intercepted him. Officers shot and killed the driver.

The photo, taken at a distance, showed a stolen SUV with its driver’s door open, and two police vehicles. Although one of the vehicles obscured the view, you could see part of the body lying on the freeway.

We wrote about the incident, too, not because of the man’s Clark County connection (that came out later), but because it caused an epic traffic jam from the river all the way up to Salmon Creek that lasted for about six hours. We didn’t use a photo.

Apparently, some readers objected and took The Oregonian to task. On Sunday, Bottomly explained her thinking:

“We might ask whether the news value of the image outweighs any potential harm,” she wrote. “What is our journalistic purpose in publishing the image? Can we articulate the purpose to readers? If we do publish, can we mitigate any possible harm, with, perhaps, a warning label?”

That’s a great way to articulate it, I thought as I read the column. To me, the photo illustrated the situation and the relative positions of the police and the driver.

Our decision involved a car crash on Northeast Highway 99 that occurred Sunday afternoon. The driver of a stolen pickup truck barreled through a red traffic light at Northeast 88th Street/88th Circle and struck the driver’s-side door of a sedan. The sedan’s driver died of his injuries.

There’s a bank across the street from the crash scene, and its exterior cameras captured two video clips that were released Monday afternoon by the sheriff’s office. One shows the driver of the stolen truck climbing out of the vehicle and running off. The other clearly shows the crash and the immediate aftermath.

We quickly posted the clip that showed the fleeing criminal to our website and social media channels. I hope it will help identify the driver and bring him to justice.

I don’t think we will be using the other clip. Although it corroborates the investigators’ account of the crash, I don’t think the news value outweighs the horror of seeing a crash in which a person dies.

We made the same decision a couple of years ago when a disturbed man armed with some metal objects was shot to death by Vancouver police. That video, shot by someone who was sitting in a vehicle in the parking lot where the incident occurred, clearly shows police trying to defuse the situation. When the man lunges at an officer, the police open fire. The recording was shared widely on social media, but not by us.

Were all three of these situations news? Yes, as evidenced by the coverage each story received. But just because you have a photo or video doesn’t mean you automatically publish it. Had I been in Bottomly’s position, I would have run the photo. Likewise, I am perfectly content not to have posted these video recordings that showed a violent death of a local person.

Would we ever use a photo or video like that? Perhaps. But there will have to be a strong journalistic purpose to do so.


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