Don Rogers: Vail Daily make wrong call with chairlift photo?
January 3, 2009
From the complaint files: We published a picture Saturday of a skier hanging upside down off a chairlift in Blue Sky Basin. He was rescued quickly, thankfully.
But for a short time he was held up by his ski pants, and his flank was exposed in the photograph taken by another skier in the area, and sent in to us.
The head of Vail Mountain, Chris Jarnot, called in Saturday, furious that we published the photograph.
He had spoken with the skier, who was understandably traumatized by the experience of dangling off the chair, figuring this would be how he ended his time on earth.
Jarnot felt that the paper was piling on by publishing the picture. Why add extra embarrassment atop the trauma of the moment?
Well, that’s an excellent question. Maybe you can help answer this one, too. Where is the line between informing the greater community and potential embarrassment for the individual? That is a serious question, and one we grapple with fairly frequently.
As we did after receiving the photograph.
Here is what was in my mind in approving publication:
1. Is it news? Unless people routinely dangle upside down off chairlifts, the answer is an inescapable yes. And not just the moment of hanging there, but how the skier was rescued safely and pretty quickly.
2. The picture includes the skier’s bare backside while hanging. Is the image obscene or otherwise indecent? We spent more time weighing this one, and I decided that the distance from which he is seen in the frame, along with the chairlift and such, made the picture dramatic but not indecent.
3. Is the skier identifiable in the picture? No. Only those at the scene would know who he is, and we did not include a name.
To me, the picture documented a moment, a scary one for sure. We all could identify with the skier’s predicament and feel for him; there’s no stigma in an accident. And no one would know who he was by looking at the picture.
Jarnot asked if we’d photograph a victim at a car wreck. We will not publish an image of someone who died, but we fairly routinely show people being rescued, yes. Often enough, they are identifiable in the photograph.
The aim isn’t piling on, trying to add to someone’s embarrassment. Our work is specifically to document real life events, particularly when they are not the norm. To accurately reflect what happened.
Sometimes that is embarrassing.
Jarnot asked if we could have accomplished our mission without the photograph, by leaving the story to a news brief only. Obviously, the answer is yes.
The photo showed what was going on in a far more compelling way than a news brief could have. But you could argue fairly that a news brief would not be as personally embarrassing to the poor guy hanging off the chair.
I think there are very good arguments both ways. A compelling photo of a person who is not identifiable in the picture. Or a news brief that just tells the short, scary and ultimately successful story of the rescue.
We ultimately went with the photo. But what would you do?
I’m very interested in what you think because this question will come up again, as it does in newsrooms across the country.
To a large extent, the newspaper is an extension of the community’s mores.
For example, the calls would be non-ending from outraged readers if we published a photograph of someone who died in an accident.
In this case, we received one call, which I take seriously because the caller raised valid points that will come up again in some form.
So, what do you think? Did we make the right decision in publishing the photograph? Why or why not?
After all, this is ultimately your paper.
Don Rogers is the editor and associate publisher of the Vail Daily. He can be reached at 748-2920 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He welcomes your comments.