DEAR READER: A wreck on the road hits home

Friday, May 30, 2014 | 2:59 p.m. CDT; updated 1:15 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 12, 2014

Dear Reader,

Eight people died in Missouri over the Memorial Day weekend from traffic accidents. Eight hundred twenty-six people died in Missouri from accidents in 2012, the most recent year available at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration website.

The family and friends are forever changed in the instant someone loses a life in an accident. For the rest of us, it’s too easy to see each death as simply another statistic. We accept the deaths and injuries (50,376 in Missouri in 2012) as part of our car culture.

One woman died on Wednesday at Route Z and Interstate 70 outside Columbia. Her death will be harder to forget.

Lynelle Pace died when the motorcycle she was driving collided with a Ford Escape driven by Michael Brooks, who told a highway trooper he never saw Pace as he pulled onto Route Z from the off ramp.

The Missourian ran three photos from the accident. They told the story in ways that words never could.

One was a more typical crash scene of troopers examining the wreckage. The motorcycle lies on its side, almost underneath the front quarter panel of the black Escape. One reader complained that the photo, which ran on the Missourian's Instagram account, was insensitive. It may have been because the photo was posted even before the victim was identified. Or because photos on Instagram are often more upbeat, rather than about hard news.

The content of two other photos were more emotional and controversial.

The top photo in the online edition showed a shoe, a helmet, sunglasses, the motorcycle’s windshield and a big stretch of empty pavement. No mangled metal. No blood. The picture’s power was in the symbolism of the loss of these simple, everyday items.

A secondary photo in both online and print editions showed the driver standing in profile, hands on the overpass guardrail, head down and shoulders up tight. You can’t see his face, but you can imagine the shock and pain he’s experiencing at that moment.

Both were too much for some readers.

A friend of the family wrote on the Missourian’s Facebook wall that the shoe photo was inconsiderate, disrespectful and in poor taste. “How would YOU feel if this was your family or friend?” she asked.

That question was in fact asked on the copy desk Wednesday night — but about the picture of the driver. Here’s how the decisions were made:

Photo editors knew they were seeing dramatic pictures, but they believed that Shannon Elliott’s three photos told a complete story, a truthful depiction of the tragedy that unfolded at that intersection. They sent the photos along to the copy desk.

Copy editor Chris Jasper edited the article. As he viewed the photos, he said he “got a funny feeling” about the picture of the driver.

Jasper did something next that was critical. He honored that feeling by saying something to others. Many mistakes I’ve made in my career came because I didn’t listen to that tickle in the back of my head.

Other editors got involved, and soon I was asked to join the discussion. For the next 20 minutes, most of the newsroom discussed the photo of Michael Brooks. Was it too much of an intrusion into a private moment? Was the pain it might cause worth it?

By seeing it, would a reader think for a moment of all the times she started from a stop sign to suddenly see a person or vehicle previously missed? Everyone was given a chance to voice a concern or opinion.

In the end, I made the decision to use the photo, but keep it secondary. The shoe photo came up during the conversation, but no one in the room voiced particular concerns.

Several recognized the emotional impact. But no one, including me, saw it the way some readers did. Perhaps that was because it didn’t have the usual red flags associated with a fatality; there wasn’t a human in the picture. Regardless, we should have paused to discuss that photo, too, even if the decision was the same in the end.

I still believe the photo needed to be shown. We as a community need to see and discuss the human impact of these tragedies. I know you may disagree, and that's OK.

The scholar James Carey once said that journalism “converts valued experience into memory and record so it will not perish.” Journalism can store our common memory in ways that are sensitive and in ways that cause human suffering. The line isn’t always easy to find, and sometimes that journalism does both at the same time.

I often ride my bicycle to Ashland through the back roads you can find off Route Z. As I read the article Wednesday, I was reminded of the signs in several yards along the route.

"Watch for motorcycles," they say.

In 2012, 104 of those 826 traffic fatalities involved motorcycles. The statistics don’t tell us how they happened. But for a second-long look and a split-second choice, I could have been involved in one.

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