In the past two weeks I have experienced the low point of my 35 year career as a photojournalist. I also achieved new heights. Technology has transformed what I do from a once daily endeavor into 24-7, in your face, watch the drama unfold medium. Fewer and fewer people have the news delivered to them on the doorstep each morning. Most everyone wants it now, on their workplace desktop, laptop, and mobile device, for free.
After 25 years of learning light, composition, planning and patience, I figured out the art of capturing an image. I told stories with my half-tones that were published once a day. A dozen years ago, the internet began to allow us to publish photos day or night. As many as we wanted. There was software to add music and voice in the background as images flowed across the desktop monitors. They made my photos sing. A half-dozen years ago I got a GoPro and an image stabilized HD video camera. My focus zoomed to moving images.
A year ago we started experimenting with live video. From parades and balloons rising in the air to fires, accidents and rescue missions gone awry. We began to bring our viewers news up close and personal as it happened.
Recently, it got way too personal. A middle school student was killed in a crosswalk on his way to school. I live around the corner and heard the sirens as I walked to my car to drive my youngest son to the high school. I knew it was something bad from the way they were driving. I have learned to recognize the different sounds of the sirenes and engine noise from the responders between when they are going to a fire alarm in a Bates dorm for the 3rd time in a week that is usally a malfunction or burnt popcorn, or what is probably a bad accident, fire or some other catastrophy. I was not working and wanted to spend what little time I had with my teenager talking about his life and future, and refrained from my urge to turn on the scanner to learn what was going on a block from my house from where I determined they were going from the sounds. After dropping him off, I turned my scanner on to immediately hear LPD calling for PW to come with barracades as the road would be closed down for most of the day. I figured there was an accident and a pole was across the road……or worse. I parked my car in my driveway and walked to the scene and began to live stream. A police officer I know and respect warned me it was a fatal, the young boy was under the tarp and they had not found the parents yet.
I should have taken a photo and sent it to the newsroom to be posted online. Instead, I chose to broadcast live. I started with the two brightly colored sneakers on the wet pavement and panned to a backpack torn open with books, papers, pens and note cards scattered along a long trail toward the truck covered in tarp 50 yards away. I gave a 360-degree pan of the scene with the wide-angle lens when I noticed a woman coming up the street. I had a sense it was the mother and turned the camera away and watched in horror as she fell to her knees and fell apart. I should have ended the live broadcast then. I thought the engine noise of the ambulance where I was pointing my new iPhone 7plus would drown out her hysteria. But it was a new phone I have had a week, not the old android with a crappy microphone. If you listened closely, you could hear her cries. Many people were horrified and appalled. We took the video down immediately, but the damage was done.
I have photographed fatalities more than I want to remember over my career. But they were mostly static images, vetted and scrutinized before being shown to the public. We all see dead people on the national news on a regular basis and the violence on TV and in the movies is frightening. But local, live and in stereo horror is sure to haunt and deeply disturb many in our community. That is not compassionate or responsible journalism. It borders on sensationalism. I crossed the line in the eyes of many. After much internal debate, I have to agree.
In the past week, I have heard from many who said its just reality and part of what we do. They think it was justified and want to see more. “How many parents have kids that get to school crossing that street and were worried sick it was their student. But when you showed the sneakers and backpack they may have been horrified, but relieved it was not their child.” At first, I just said thanks and moved on as I didn’t want to debate the issue. Lately, as the initial shock and emotions have started to fade, I have become more vocal. I tell those that bring it up that I should have been more compassionate and not live broadcast as I did. I tell them that in the future if ever there is another situation like this, I will think more about how I approach. Perhaps a 15 second video from the scene from far away may have been the way to go. Perhaps just a still image would suffice. But while I have a desire to be compassionate, it is my job to report the news. Some people will be offended and appalled at whatever we publish, they will be upset wheter it is live or in print after everyone knows about it. Some are even upset by the words we use to describe a scene.
Every assignment is unique and requires an immediate reaction. Deciding where, when and for how long to live broadcast will always be a challenge. Rest assured, I learn from mistakes, especially the ones that way heavy on my conscience and humanity.
On an uplifting note, the past few weeks have been like technology Christmas. I love getting tools for presents, and our recently arrived drone and 360-degree camera, all powered by my new iPhone has added to my journalist toolbox. Moving forward, after the next two weeks off for a much-needed vacation, I am excited to keep my foot on the emerging technology gas pedal, aspiring to use these tools to cover the news with a unique perspective, including interactive dialogue.
Murder, mayhem, and mischief may appeal to some of our audience. It is part of what I document that pulls at heartstrings. Mine included. I have shed more tears this past 10 days than the past 10 months. About half were for Jayden. But tears of happiness and joy also flowed. When I live streamed the veterans and students at Farwell saying the Pledge of Allegiance, then hugs and kisses, the tears felt good. The next day I live streamed the Veterans tribute at the Lewiston armory and thought of my son Ryan, who I have not seen in a year, but so damn proud and happy he is living his dream. Watching the high school cadets march past, just like he did a few years ago. Running into a superwoman at that event was the icing on the cake. At one point I had to duck into the back hallway and have a full on flowing cry. I hope she will allow me to tell her story. I met her when Ryan was in the cadet program in high school. She and her husband had taken in some of the kids at various times. They housed or provided not only shelter and sustenance for many kids but was the only love and nurturing they ever received from outside school. She brought me up to date on many of the kids I knew from that time, even pulling out her phone to show me a Facebook page of one who never gave up and finally made it into and through basic training in the Navy. I asked who the two really young kids were in the stroller and climbing on the rolled up pads were. They were kids of mothers who could no longer take care of them. The latest kids that now have a chance at living up to their potential and not becoming a burden on society. Stories of people like this and the thousands of birds, bees, trees,artists, musicians and heroes offset the death and destruction that I broadcast for the world, and my close net community to see and hear. It’s what makes me feel like I have the best job in the world. Most days.