In matters of death, let words suffice
By Mark Platte
When 65-year-old Michelle Jeoung Ah Kim was hit and killed by a school bus on University Avenue a week ago Friday, we had the gruesome photos and video of her body, covered under a blue tarp, crushed beneath the left rear wheel of the bus. We chose not to run them.
Every other media outlet in town — Hawaii News Now, KHON 2, KITV 4 and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin — went a different way. All of their images clearly showed the covered body wedged under the wheel.
I shy away from body-bag shots and photos of bodies, even if they are covered. The mental image of someone who had just died — even wrapped in tarp — is horrific enough to see in person, much less memorialized for newspaper readers or television viewers.
There are exceptions. The mass deaths in Haiti after January's earthquake necessitated showing covered bodies but those images seemed essential to telling the story. This photo did not, especially since it was a local woman whose family, friends or neighbors might see The Advertiser. After the accident occurred, we ran a generic shot of the intersection blocked off by police.
My counterparts in television, and even my own photo editor, disagree with me on this one. I asked the three news directors if they would explain their decisions.
"Hawaii News Now felt it was important to air video of the scene of the accident to demonstrate where the victim was in relation to the bus, intersection, crosswalk and overall area used by many drivers and pedestrians," said Chris Archer, the news director.
Archer said newsroom employees wondered where the victim was in relation to the bus and assumed viewers would have the same question.
"We specifically did not air any close-up images of the body, and made certain all wide and medium shots showed only the tarp-covered body; no blood, hands, feet, etc.," he said.
Hawaii News Now was also the only news station to air the full video clip of the athlete from the republic of Georgia who was killed in his final Olympic training luge run.
"We decided to air the full clip for the following reasons: The actual impact was somewhat obscured by the track structure, luge is inherently dangerous (same reason NASCAR wrecks make it on the air) and the video helped viewers understand the danger and controversy surrounding that new track at Whistler," Archer said, adding that viewers were warned beforehand what was to come.
KHON 2 did not run the video of the fatal crash, while KITV 4 froze the image just before the athlete went off the track.
But both ran extensive footage of the body under the bus.
Genie Garner, KITV 4's news director, said there was no discussion about using the bus accident images.
"We treated this story as we would any story involving an accident with a fatality," she said. "We want to make sure the body is covered and that we are shooting from a distance that is far enough away. To the best of my knowledge, we did not receive any complaints."
KHON 2's news chief Lori Silva said she understands that a covered body could be perceived as a "graphic image" and the station would never show a body uncovered at an accident scene.
"Frankly, covered-body shots have not been an issue; we've used them before for murders and other accidents," she said, noting that the covered body of 23-month Cyrus Belt, thrown from a freeway overpass, has been shown many times.
"To my knowledge, this one did not prompt reaction from viewers, but perhaps we should re-evaluate," she said. "I feel I have one of the strictest policies when it comes to what kind of video can be aired, when to name victims or suspects, and not naming victims of sex abuse, etc."
Advertiser photo editor Seth Jones has always pushed for these kinds of shots, arguing that our readers can handle disturbing images and that the photos tell the story in the way that words cannot.
With all due respect to my colleagues, I think words can suffice in this case. And when I read Advertiser Staffer Suzanne Roig's story on Kim's funeral a few days later, with photos of the mourners at the Kaimukī church she had founded and her smiling face in the photo, I felt like I had made the correct call.
Mark Platte is senior vice president and editor of The Advertiser. Reach him at 525-8080. Or follow his Twitter updates at http://twitter.com/markplatte.