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Why do we publish stories, photos?

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By Becky Cassell, Editor

Someone asked me recently why we publish details and photos from fatal crashes, fires and other tragedies.

That's certainly a fair question. It's also one that I'm sure has been debated in newsrooms around the world. For that reason, I believe such a question deserves what I hope is a thoughtful and considerate answer.

First of all, the last thing we want to do is compound the pain of a family who has lost a loved one. I cannot even begin to imagine the grief and helplessness that they must feel, and I can only pray that someday they find some sort of solace from their pain.

Having to bury a loved one - especially a child - is not the way life is supposed to work, but that's also what makes it news of legitimate public interest.

For that reason, we believe the public interest is best served by reporting as accurately and sensitively as we can - from official sources - the causes and consequences of fatal incidents. And that also means not omitting information on purpose and, yes, sometimes, using photographs where appropriate.

However, we attempt to also take into account the feelings of family members, and we always avoid especially graphic images or those that might show the victim. We also try to write about the lives of victims in an attempt to remind readers that these are real human beings, not just highway statistics.

At the same time, we believe other drivers - especially teenagers - should be shown what can happen to a car in an collision. All too often, youth is accompanied by some false sense of invulnerability. Because of that, it's far too easy to feel safe in a vehicle until we see what can happen in a high-speed wreck.

In the past several years, traffic safety agencies display mock crashes at area high schools, displaying cars that have been involved in crashes in an attempt to point young drivers to a vision of reality. But who knows how seriously these learning opportunities are taken by students and even their parents.

There's also the issue of where to draw the line. Do we publish photos or not? Do we include graphic details or not?

There is much ugliness in life's realities that can be upsetting, however, if we are to ever change the future, we must face injustices head on. But as much as we wish they didn't happen at all, they do.

I once attended an editor's meeting during which we discussed this very issue. One editor discussed his newspaper's policy in light of recent harsh comments that his paper had received. Many in his community had criticized the newspaper for publishing a photograph of a fatal motorcycle collision. However, the mother of the victim thanked him for publishing it and the accompanying story about her child's life.

"Hiding the truth won't make it go away," the mother said. "But maybe seeing it in black and white will help to save someone else's child someday."

It's only human to hope that our own tragedies will somehow do someone else some good down the road. Every life saved means there's one less family to grieve.