Monday Briefing: We stand by our coverage of Saturday’s crash

No news organization likes using valuable time and editorial space to defend itself, but we find it necessary this morning, one day after the editor of another Riverhead news site accused us of unethical coverage of a motor vehicle crash. It was the second time in 11 days editor Denise Civiletti of riverheadlocal.com has cited the journalism code of ethics in an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the News-Review for publishing a news item when she did not. It was the second time in 11 days we found her remarks to be off-base.

Ms. Civiletti accused the News-Review of arrogance, insensitivity, and pandering to lurid curiosity for publishing a photograph of two cars involved in a fatal crash Saturday night. Riverhead Local opted not to run a crash photo despite being “on the scene of that crash … long before other media arrived,” as Ms. Civiletti reports. At the bottom of the Local story ran the following editor’s note: “When we know someone involved in an accident is deceased on the scene, we do not publish photos of the car(s) involved in the crash.”

On April 21, 2011, Riverhead Local ran more than a dozen photos of a Baiting Hollow crash that claimed the life of Brian Costello, a developmentally disabled man from Port Jefferson. Many of the pictures still visible on the site today show the vehicle wreckage. Mr. Costello wasn’t pronounced dead on the scene, but was pronounced dead minutes later, before anyone had reported on the crash.

On Sept. 15, 2006, while working as the executive editor of the former North Shore Sun newspaper, Ms. Civiletti and her husband, photographer Peter Blasl, published a front page photo of a car stuck on the second floor of an apartment building in Coram, where the driver remained trapped and killed. Mr. Blasl was so proud of this example of quality journalism, he entered it for an award from the New York Press Association. It won first place,  with the judges calling it “amazing” and “spectacular.”

And it was.

One week after winning the award, Ms. Civiletti opted to publish the photo a second time, a move that drew complaints from the victim’s family. In a column the following week she apologized, but only for publishing the photo a second time.

“The scene depicted in the photo … was news when it happened, and, as such, we were correct to print it at the time,” she wrote.

That’s how we feel today at the News-Review. We published the photo Saturday night because it was news — not because we were arrogantly looking to drum up web traffic or due to a lack of sensitivity, as Ms. Civiletti claims.

Journalists don’t like covering sensitive topics. We do it because it’s all part of the job.

A car accident story with no photograph can draw more than 1,000 readers to a story in a day. While adding a photo can get more people to our website, that’s not why we did it Saturday night.

We did it because it was a big story and using the image enhanced our ability to tell that story. There was never any thought over how much traffic we could get from running the photo vs. not publishing it. There was no violation of ethics, just as it was not unethical for us to protect sources in a recent story about the troubled past (and present) of a potential town appointee, as Ms. Civiletti has accused. [Protecting sources with anonymity is a staple of quality journalism, encouraged at times when outing a source can damage their reputation or livelihood.]

The decision to protect sources or to run certain photos is up to the editors of a news organization and competitors simply have no say in the decision. In this case, the three editors of our newspaper and website used more than a half century of experience in journalism to ultimately decide the photo from Saturday’s accident scene should be published and not taken down later despite a few complaints, the loudest of which was delivered by a woman who stands to directly benefit from damaging our reputation.

It was a news decision, not a question of ethics.

Grant Parpan is the web editor of TimesReview Newsgroup.

Editor’s Note: We did not hear complaints about our photo from the victim’s family or anyone involved in the crash. Riverhead Local was the only of three local news outlets to cover the crash Saturday night and not print photos of the vehicles.