By KERRIE HECKEL
If YouTube has taught me anything, it’s that people like being in the news. And, if pretending to see a leprechaun in my neighborhood means I will get into the news, then I will tell you all about that leprechaun.
However, in Anderson County, Ky., getting in the news seemed to lose its charm when The Anderson News printed the headline, “HAVE A HAPPY NEW YEAR. But please don’t drink and drive and risk having your picture published.”
The small paper from Central Kentucky was introducing a new editorial piece to be picked up at the start of 1998. The editorial would publish photos of all persons convicted of drunk driving in Anderson County as an innovative way to deter driving while under the influence.
Mug shots were first published monthly, and then weekly, and then limited only those living in Anderson County or surrounding areas reached by the newspaper.
Although the newspaper’s goal to reduce drunk driving was a noble one, there was no concrete evidence the policy was helping to achieve this goal and some believed the newspaper was taking too much of a toll on residents’ personal lives.
The photos reportedly caused teasing directed towards the kids of parents with their pictures in the newspaper and even an attempted suicide of one teenager who feared having his picture published.
The Anderson News stopped publishing mug shots of drunk drivers in 2008 under a new editor and the rational that it “adds a level of punishment, or at least embarrassment, beyond what is imposed by a judge.”
What makes The Anderson News’ content interesting is that starting and stopping publishing mug shots of drunk drivers has to do with issue of morality not legality.
Legally speaking, the newspaper had every right to publish the mug shots. It is not uncommon to see stories on criminal cases in newspapers and by drinking and driving the residents of Anderson County gave up their right to privacy.
When The Anderson News began printing mug shots they were attempting to serve their public interest of keeping the streets safe. They were reporting the truth, it was relevant to the community, and using their power of voice to prevent drunk driving appeared to be a morally correct choice.
What the newspaper learned after publishing mug shots for some time was that they may be inflicting harm to their community that was not outweighed by the benefits of their drunk driving coverage. As the coverage led to teasing in schools, embarrassment among community members and, perhaps at its worst, a teenager’s attempted suicide. Analyzing these effects are what motivated the newspaper to pull the piece from their paper.
The Anderson News drunk driving coverage reminds us that being a journalist isn’t solely about circulating information. A good journalist needs to be able to understand the authority that comes with their position and how they can best serve their community.
Journalists must remember that just because something falls in the legal realm of possibility does not mean it is acceptable to publish it.
Lastly, an important point to note is that when The Anderson News pulled its drunk driving coverage, it was under a new editor. This makes me wonder if the newspaper’s employees had seen the moral issues with printing the names and images before the regular feature was pulled, but did not voice their opinions to their editor. If so, this brings up another point that journalists need to not only have a moral compass, but that they need to also be brave enough to stand up for what their gut is telling them.