?When I was a snot-nosed schoolgirl I couldn't believe it was legal for some newspapers to publish the content they did. I wrote a bitter letter to the editor of the Express–on copybook paper, and possibly in pencil–asking these publications to cease and desist.
Imagine if they had listened to me; there would have been protest lines around the block if the Punch had been shut down like I wanted it to. It was the charming and beautiful journalist Sandra Chouthi (who has since grown only more charming and beautiful) who intercepted me in the lobby of the old Cocoa House at the Express to tell me ever so gently that they wouldn't publish my fiery letter.�Newspapers, she said, don't like to criticise other newspapers. That's why what I'm about to do is breaking a golden rule. I thought the Newsday's decision to publish the picture of the dead baby, on Monday gone, was wrong. Dead wrong, actually. (I can't resist a pun, sorry.) Then there was the follow-up bad decision to defend their initial disastrous choice in a front-page editorial, no less. "The photo was meant to shock," the editorial read. "And shock it did, judging by the letters and telephone calls we received accusing us of insensitivity, lack of human decency, disgraceful and such like comments.
"Like readers we were pained to see this photograph of a one-year-old beautiful doll-like child lying dead in a patch of grass. But we deliberately, and after much thought, published the photo in the hope, which we hope will not be in vain, to sensitise people about the escalating carnage on our roads." An editorial on vehicular accidents and road carnage is surely not out of line. But when it points fingers at the grieving family, and even the dead mother of the dead child, who failed to properly secure the infant, surely, that has crossed a line. I have a question for the author of the editorial. It categorically states, "Speeding or intoxicated drivers are responsible" for the deaths of people in motor vehicle accidents. I do not wish to imply that intoxication and excessive speed are not the causes of some fatal motor vehicle crashes. But are you certain that those are the only two reasons for the crashes that claim so many lives?
Tiredness, as any driver would attest, must share some of the blame. Which of us has not drifted off while driving one night or early morning, blinking only to find our car drifting too? In fact, a defensive driving instructor warned me that falling asleep at the wheel, not driving drunk, was the more present danger. (Maybe he thought I looked too innocent to drink.) One needn't be drunk to have bad judgment, to run a red light or a stop sign; and one needn't be speeding, either. There is also the very real problem of our atrociously maintained roads and highways. I have previously and vociferously lamented the condition of our roads, some with potholes so big you wish you had a towel and some sunblock to make best use of them. There are roads so bumpy and rough that they wrench the steering wheel right out of your hands; have you ever driven down the Morne Coco Road from Le Platte Village? That's a good example of a bad example. Not only is the road itself steep, winding and unlit, it is bounded on one side by a mountain face and on the other by a precipice.
When I first met it, my heart was in my throat as I navigated the turns, especially those where the smooth road gave way to a gravelly, broken, pitted surface that would sometimes fall away to the steep drop. I wasn't drunk and I wasn't speeding, and yet, by the druthers of the author of that editorial, had I met my fate on that perilous road I would have been blamed for my own demise. It hasn't happened to me but I have heard stories of brakes failing. These things are not planned; my own car's persistent transmission trouble used to leave me red-faced and stalled in the most inconvenient of spots. Once it happened on the Lady Young; another time, crossing the Colville Street traffic lights. Bless God, nothing happened. But it could have; would it have been my fault? Accidents happen. Some car crashes are indeed caused by drunk and high drivers, and by speed demons who enjoy the rush of zooming down a highway or street. But I am sure, beyond all doubt, that these are not the only causes of fatal crashes, and it is reprehensible for a newspaper in its editorial space to say so.
Was there shock value in putting the baby's photo on the front page?Absolutely. And I'm sure the Newsday sold out on newsstands that day. But we as media workers, journalists, must make judgments weighing the value of such photos against what is human and acceptable to the public. This is not the first time such poor taste has been exercised; as my venerable former editor Lenny Grant pointed out to some histrionic folk on FaceBook this week, some years ago there was a pic-ture of the severed head of a kidnap victim on another front page. There was possibly some redeeming social value to that choice, too; but did it reduce at all the grim horror of seeing that decomposing head on the front page? I can still remember it, years later. Social responsibility is the thing standing between a free press and hell itself. Without self-regulation, we can do anything. Anything. We can publish anything we want to, once it's not libellous or untrue, or in contravention of the laws of the land. But does that mean we ought to?
Self-regulation is not the same as self-censorship. I am not by any means suggesting that we should make decisions to hold our hands from publishing inconvenient truths, or unfashionable but necessary stories. But we ought to be able to tell the difference between a sensible risk and shock for the sake of shock. Perhaps Newsday is right and I am wrong. It is possible the picture of Nevi Vionna, not quite a year old, angelic and pristine in her romper and hooded blanket, has softened the hard hearts of drunk drivers and speed demons from Icacos to Toco, all the way to Chaguaramas and back to Guayaguayare. It's not likely, but it's possible.