Pictures of death

There are times when the journalist knows a proposal limiting access to public documents is innately wrong.  But common decency asks the troublesome question, “Why is it innately wrong.”

The Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian had a story yesterday about a bill in the Missouri House that would prohibit public access to crime scene photos and videos that “depict or describe a deceased person in a state of dismemberment, decapitation, or similar mutilation including, without limitations, where the deceased person’s genitals are exposed.”  The bill says those images would not be covered by the state public records bill.

The bill also says the Department of Public Safety will make rules about “bona fide credentialed journalists” seeing any of the footage.

Representative Scott Largent of Clinton sponsors the bill that is based on Georgia legislation.  Georgia passed its bill in 2010 after Hustler magazine filed an open records request to get pictures taken of a woman’s autopsy and at the crime scene.  She had been decapitated by a robber.   The magazine said it wanted to get the images for a story it was going to publish.  Georgia’s Bureau of Investigation called the request “indecent” and denied it.

Largent’s bill does allow release of the images to the deceased person’s closest relative or a person who has received that relative’s permission.  A judge also can order release of the images once the criminal investigation is finished and the judge finds that the public interest outweighs any privacy interests claimed by the nearest relative. And there are some other qualifications in the bill, too.

The images are not the kinds of things you see splashed across the front page, above the fold, of the local newspaper although I have seen some pretty grisly things in years past on the fronts of supermarket tabloids—before they started focusing on Martians in the Pentagon and pictures of movie stars either pregnant, divorcing, or in their final days.

If you visit your bookstore and stop at the “true crime” section, you’ll probably find a book or two that has a picture of the victim at the crime scene.  And some books about Hollywood crime or Hollywood scandals have included some pretty gruesome pictures of stars and starlets or wannabes who have met graphic terminations.

So public exposure of pretty awful photographs of dead people is not new, especially if the dead people fall into the rather broad category of “celebrity.”

But what about the people in our town, our neighbors, our family members, or others who walk the same streets as we do?  These are people who have not placed themselves in positions where they forfeit some degree of privacy.  Aren’t they entitled to be private citizens as much in death as they are in life?

Reporters are not beyond asking themselves the same questions. And most of the reporters I’ve known have a strong sense of humanity and decency.  I don’t know of a single reporter at the capitol that would jump at the chance to circulate a photograph of an eviscerated, decapitated, dismembered corpse at the crime scene.

But reporters almost automatically have misgivings when government at any level decides public records of any kind cannot be accessed by the public. Not just by reporters.  By the general public. Transparency and openness are words that are easily used in government and too easily ignored or circumvented by that government.

Anybody who has been around very long knows that legal standards on decency fluctuate from generation to generation if not from year to year.  Many people, not just reporters, get nervous when government tries to dictate those standards.

One more thing in our ruminations on the issues of this bill: the rules and regulations that are to be promulgated by the Department of Public Safety about access to these materials by “bona fide credentialed members of the press.”

The world is changing for those of us who consider ourselves “the press.”  It used to be that if you worked for a newspaper or a radio or television station, you were part of “the press.”   But the development of the internet has changed that turf.  Is a person who writes blogs a member of “the press?”  Are those who aggregate material from other news sources and put it on the net members of “the press?”   Are the fact-checkers at various sites who test the truth of political claims or folklore members of “the press?”  Is Matt Drudge a member of “the press?”  How about the Huffington Post?  Or The Daily Beast, Laughing Squid, or  Daily Intel?   Are Limbaugh, Hannity, Bohannon, Piers Morgan, John Stewart, Geraldo Rivera, and Wolf Blitzer all “the press?”

The traditional large organizations that pretty well knew their membership–the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio-Television Digital News Association (which used to be the Radio-Television News Directors Association).   But they’ve had to deal with the issue of who is a journalist and what is digital news.

Rep. Largent’s proposal reminds us that issues of life and death are not easily addressed and lines establishing boundaries within those great topics are not easily drawn. They’re not particularly easy to cover, either, because life and death are not just words.

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