(Four young boys died after falling through and being trapped under the ice on the Merrimack River on Saturday, December
14, 2002. This article was published as a letter to the editor in one of the city's Spanish language newspapers, Rumbo.)
On December 15, the Tribune published a front page-photo of a fireman recovering the body of Victor Baez, one of the boys
who fell through the ice near Water Street. The photo touched off a controversy in the community, and apparently even an internal
debate among the Tribune staff, as to what is and isn’t newsworthy. On December 16, in response to the protest, an editorial
in the Tribune full of pompous, inflated rhetoric, called the picture “powerful” and justified publishing because
it “conveyed a sense of grief that words cannot possibly describe.” And because it “authenticated the scene
of the tragedy” -whatever that means.
When I was growing up in Lawrence, I heard older people warn kids many times that Mr. X “values his privacy.”
So don’t bother him. That was a stock phrase back then that had a clear and specific meaning. Funny, I haven’t
heard anybody use this expression in about 40 years. Maybe it’s because people don’t value their privacy any more.
Any day you can turn on the TV and hear people confessing their family secrets in front of 50 million viewers. Telemarketers
calling you during dinner. Strangers checking your buying habits. This commingling of the public and personal has exerted
a profound effect on the news, lowering standards of public discourse the same way a low tide lowers all ships in a seaport.
Add to the mix an element of media-inspired hubris, more easily observed- but made of the same stuff- in small town weathermen
who deem each advancing northeaster “storm of the century” of “storm of biblical proportions,” and
one can see why the newspaper industry, transformed into spectacle, has lost its sense of who it is, what it does, and who
its readers are.
The Tribune’s publishing of that picture called to mind another such incident about twenty years ago where an old man
had been robbed and stabbed to death in his apartment. The Tribune published a front- page picture of the man’s blood-stained
bed. Here too one could argue that the picture “authenticated the scene of the tragedy” or “conveyed a sense
of grief.” But if the Tribune really lived by such a specious premises, then autopsy and crime scene photographs could
be considered journalism, and we might call them “powerful.” And what of the man’s family that had to see
the vulgar, pornographic image of their loved one printed and distributed all over the Merrimack Valley? Well, he was, after
all, from Lawrence- which brings us to another question.
While the photo of the boy was not nearly in as bad taste as the previous example, it demonstrates the same underlying principle.
The Tribune editors would do well to ask themselves if they would have chosen to publish the picture if the boy had been the
son of an affluent family? Or an influential family? Or a socially prominent family from the Tribune’s own exclusive
North Andover community?
Is private grief open to the public? Are private emotions on display for the world? Of course a balance must be struck between
the public’s right to know and the privacy of that same public. There can be no purely objective standard here; this
is not math or science. So we must look inward to that purely subjective, but fundamental question. If that were your child,
how would you feel about the Tribune being a “partner” in your grief?
I find it encouraging that there was internal dissention at the Tribune over this photograph. Whoever has raised the question
has discretion and wisdom- and doesn’t need to read articles like this. The Tribune should listen to them. While the
coverage of the tragic loss was otherwise sensitive, the Tribune nevertheless lost an opportunity to show restraint and good
taste. It is notable too that neither of the city’s two Spanish language newspapers chose to publish such pictures.
What lies at the heart of the Tribune’s actions and the desire to justify them is a flawed understanding of what the
mission of a newspaper is. The newsman, Edward R. Murrow once said,” Just because your voice reaches halfway around
the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.”