When the Call Comes In

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Serious accusation prompts intriguing discussion

This week, I received a startling email from a reader of this blog, complaining about the conduct of a local journalist. I ran the complaint past the journalist in question, who offered his side of the story.

I am going to tell you about that exchange, while withholding the names of both people involved.

First, here is the email that started it all, from someone who works as an emergency responder:

I wanted to alert you to what I would consider to be inappropriate actions by (reporters name). I was one of the emergency responders to a vehicle accident (at location). (The reporter) attended the accident scene with three teenaged girls in his vehicle. It disturbs me as (this reporter) did not know the nature of the accident prior to his arrival other then it was of a serious nature and the only reason that he brought the teenagers was to gawk at what could have been an extremely disturbing scene.

Thats a fairly serious accusation; that a reporter would bring children to an accident for the sole purpose of rubbernecking. My next step was to send a note to the journalist, outlining the substance of the responders complaint. Here is his response:

I was out that night when I received a call on my cell about an accident on the highway. My daughter and her two friends were indeed with me and I did have a camera. I drove to the lineup of cars that were backed up on the highway with the girls in the car and when the tow truck drove past I turned around and went home I dropped the girls at my house and drove back to the yard where the vehicle had been brought, took a pic and left.

I did indeed tell the girls that if we came upon the accident they were to stay in the vehicle. Any time I cover an accident, I stay at least 500 ft or more from the scene and walk up. It do not want to get in the way of emergency vehicles and frankly, want to make my exit as quick as possible. At the time, I was not so much working as I was in the right place at the right time. One of the girls was my daughter and the others were her two best friends. They are all 13 years old. I had a conversation with them about how an accident like this could happen and what drivers could do to avoid it. These girls are all quite mature and intelligent and if I thought for a minute I would do any harm to them it would torment me forever. This has certainly opened my eyes, though. In this case, I should have not driven out the highway, but brought the girls (to our original destination) and forgotten about the call I had received. Lesson learned!

This explanation sounds perfectly reasonable. And it dismisses the most serious charge, that the reporter brought the girls along expressly to gawk. I summarized this reply in an email back to the complainant, and asked if they were satisfied with the response. Here is that persons reply:

I guess that I would say that it wasn't about looking for a response from (the reporter) since I had mentioned it to him myself, although not in a confrontational type of way. It was more of a curiosity due to the nature of his position as a journalist and the circumstances of the situation Anyways, just thought that it was an interesting issue pertaining to journalism, public safety, privacy and parenting.

And that is why I am posting this item. The matter seems to have been resolved to the satisfaction of both parties, but it does raise interesting questions.

Most news outlets that cover spot news have reporters on call, ready to scramble at a moments notice to get to the scene of a breaking news story. That means being available in the evenings and on weekends.

However, journalists have a family and social life too, with wives, girlfriends, children, relatives and friends. And I am willing to bet that most spot news reporters have been called or paged at an awkward time, at least once in their careers.

The incident above is a classic example. You are driving somewhere with your children, and the call comes in. There is a traffic accident, with unknown injuries, just five minutes away. You are 20 minutes from home. What do you do?

In my view, it would depend on the childrens age. Younger children should not be exposed to a potentially grisly accident scene, and, of course, should not be left alone in the car while the reporter moves closer to get the story or picture.

(And I would wager that many of those who criticize a reporter, for bringing their children near an accident scene, are the same ones who slow down and gape at tangled wreckage, while their children look on in the back seat.)

Are you a reporter who has been thrust into a roughly similar situation? What did you do? Have you been in other situations where the pager or cell went off at the worst possible time? If so, please share! Media people can comment anonymously, if that is their preference.

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Recent comments

  • S.
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Definitely an interesting issue Mr. Meeker. Just a few thoughts I had reading it:

    1. Not sure if a car accident warranted an immediate response by a journalist. I would assume that they would not want to interfere with the accident goings on and the assistance of the injured, so there would be no need (or desire) to arrive early. You can always get the facts after the immediate things are taken care of. As for pictures, I would assume that one would not be taking pictures of the injured so again, no need for an immediate response. As per your example, would 15 minutes make that much of a difference?

    2. Not knowing the nature of the accident would cause me, as a parent, definite pause. I wouldn't want to willingly put my child (even teenagers) in the position of seeing something extremely upsetting. A co-worker and I were discussing this and the first thing she said was, Imagine if they knew the person or it was a family member. Definitely not something I would want to have to deal with for the sake of a few minutes.

    Of course, all of this comes with experience. I am sure that it is a lesson learned. A journalist has no greater friend than experience and a good editor.