Friday, May 27, 2011

How much information is too much?

The discovery of a missing 18-month-old toddler in a dumpster in the 2300 block of South Jefferson this week certainly evokes strong emotional reactions. Anytime a child dies unexpectedly, the desire to know more can be unflagging. Many citizens want to know what the cause of death was, who could have committed such a crime, whether family members may have been involved, and the answer to any number of other questions. Those of us outside of the victim’s family and the police department investigation must turn to news outlets to get whatever information, albeit preliminary, that we can gather. Still, when does the flow of information become too much? Crossing a line between providing necessary and useful information and somehow just feeding a public desire for salacious details? 

Just such a question arose in the CVAC office in response to a photo linked from the St. Louis Post Dispatch story "St. Louis toddler found dead in trash bin was beaten, police say." That image shows the inside of a trash dumpster and is captioned, “MAY 25, 2011: After police left the crime scene Wednesday morning, garbage remained inside a [sic] alley trash bin in the 2300 block of South Jefferson Avenue where an 18-month-old St. Louis boy was found dead hours earlier.”
It is undoubtedly a fine line to walk when making decisions about language and images associated with horrible stories like this one, and it is also one where the freedom of the press to do their job is extremely important. The first question I would ask is why the image was taken in the first place, what potential news value it had. Assuming that the editors found value in the existence of that photo, the next decision is whether or not to include it in their coverage. In Covering Crime and Justice: A Guide for Journalists, the authors suggest a set of four questions to consider when deciding whether to publish potentially graphic or disturbing material. Allow me to apply those to this case:
1. Is this graphic detail necessary to tell the story?
No, the majority of people have either used a dumpster or seen them enough to have a frame of reference for what the inside looks like.
2. Will this detail help the community at large?
No, the inside of that specific dumpster is of little relevance to community safety. As previously mentioned, many citizens already have a frame of reference for the inside of a dumpster.
3. Will readers or viewers be offended by such details?
Yes, it is possible.
4. Will the victim suffer more because of the details?
Yes, if you consider the family of the deceased to be victims of the crime, as well. It is also possible that the victim’s family could find that picture now or in a future internet search. Having such a specific image of where their lost loved one was left could increase their emotional suffering. Families should have the decision of whether to view crime scene pictures either with the investigating officer or in court with a trained advocate, rather than accidentally coming upon it on a news site.
In my estimation, this test advises against posting this particular picture.