Unintended victims left in the aftermath

27 Apr

by Paige Czyzewski

It’s raining lightly as I sit outside the bookstore on my laptop waiting. Focusing on the work in front of me, I absentmindedly wave to classmates who call my name when they walk by. I’m too consumed to fully look up, but my eyes rise once I notice a figure has steadily paused over the table.

Students are mainly inside the cozy cafe behind me, so I shiver out a smile to the man in front of me, insisting we stay in the cold to talk. After all, he has taken time out of his busy Monday schedule of writing West Virginia University’s 2015 commencement speeches to speak to me. I want to hear what he has to say without the extra noise.

Jake Stump may be known as the Senior Writer responsible for creating President Gee’s speeches here in Morgantown, but before returning to his former university as an employee, he worked as a writer for The Charleston Daily Mail. During this time, Stump faced an ethical visual issue that may have appeared small at first, but ended up actually impacting the young journalist on a more personal level.

Stump had been working at The Charleston Daily Mail during his second year on staff when he was asked to cover a car crash on a local street. As part of a neighborhood section generally small in size, instances like a 115-mph vehicle disaster were considered newsworthy. Stump was tasked with writing about a particular like situation and providing the visual content.

However, hearing this without the background I begin to question the graphic severity of what Stump and his previous editors published, but before I ask, he explains in an almost sad manner,

“When you work for a large publication in cities like Philadelphia and New York, things like local accidents don’t make the print, but this was years ago for a small circulation. It wasn’t front page, but it was news. You printed the picture.”

I’m silent. What did Stump photograph?

I begin to spew questions, and as I start to slowly receive the general facts of the situation, I’m a little confused as to why he looks so upset.

It had been days after an intense car crash occurred when Stumps’ editor told him to retrieve a photograph for the devastating story. A husband had died speeding recklessly down a main road when he veered off and flipped into a tree. The car had been completely totaled.

When Stump took the picture for publication, it was of the vehicle, wrecked and crumpled in the car yard. Besides the name of the victim in the article, the picture had no other personal or seemingly sensitive items in it, except, well, the car.

The article may have been published as third page news, and it may have been a “standard” story for the community, but that didn’t exactly matter to the man’s wife.

It’s beginning to make sense.

“She called me… his wife. It was the first time I had received a phone call like that. You think, ‘we print these exact stories all the time. It’s public news,’ but I get it. She was upset and screaming. Just seeing the car on paper was an invasion of her privacy,” he says.

While, overall, Stump recognized that he didn’t seriously invade her privacy—her name was not used, there was no humanly graphic content in the photograph, and the article was published days after the occurrence—seeing the physical vehicle crushed still felt personal to the wife, a victim of the crash despite not being inside of the car. She had become the unintended victim that Stump had never really considered.

Stump’s story may not have affected a large mass of people, but it generates multiple controversial questions. If only one person is affected, is the picture really needed? The photo is emotionally sensitive as much as it can be to show the car, so should it really matter? Could there have been a different way to include a visual without the car? Is this one crash, with a normal citizen, seriously newsworthy enough to outweigh such psychological harm?

It had been normal for the process to include these stories and photos at The Charleston Daily Mail, but Stump’s sympathy was a recognizable feeling I had by the end of our meeting.

Sometimes in the end, it just isn’t really worth it. 

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