A little girl, 10 years old, was struck and killed while trying to cross a street in Waterdown this summer.
Since then, a lot has happened, and a lot has been said about the media.
Most of it goes like this: “ The little girl should be the story. The media shouldn’t even be near an incident as tragic as this.”
I agree completely with the first sentence, and strongly disagree, with the second. After 35 years in the media, let me explain why.
What is News?
Let’s start with a simple question: What is news?
The most basic answer to that, is that any event outside of the realm of the commonplace, is potentially news. If it doesn’t happen every day; if it’s rare or unusual, it’s news.
Certainly, this incident would fit that description.
Thankfully, children are not struck and killed by cars every day. At least, not in this particular city.
Given that fact, there are naturally, questions to be asked after such a tragic event.
For example, was anyone else hurt? Did a pedestrian signal, or traffic light malfunction? Was a crossing guard missing, who should have been there? Was the driver of the vehicle intoxicated? Speeding? Incapacitated by medical emergency? Was someone negligent, or at fault in some way?
Were there extenuating circumstances?
In this case, there were.
A virtually simultaneous accident on Highway 403, at the Aberdeen avenue exit, caused a massive traffic jam that sent drivers in every direction, looking for a way out of the gridlock. Many of those drivers, chose routes that ultimately passed along Dundas Stree in Waterdown, where the little girl was struck. That high volume of traffic, may have been a factor that caused the driver of the vehicle to hit the little girl. The driver may have been frustrated by the situation, or distracted. Less cautious than normal. The other cars, and trucks, may have blocked the driver’s visibility. Or perhaps changes to the infrastructure at the site of the accident are needed, to make it safer for a little girl to cross a road.
Or perhaps, sadly, the little girl herself, may have made a fatal mistake.
As it happens, area residents had been complaining for several months about traffic volume, speeding, and other problems along this particular stretch of road. And, more pointedly, they had complained about the especially difficult and dangerous conditions that result, when accidents and other problems shut down the 403.
Such information is relevant, and arguably of public interest not only to residents of Waterdown, but to anyone who has experienced one of the all-too-frequent traffic jams in the bottleneck formed by the 403, on its way down from the top of the Niagara escarpment.
None of the information, however, would ever get to you directly through the police. They have other things to do. Like determining why a little girl had to die in such a tragic accident.
It’s the media that will shed light on the facts, and provide context to the public, in these cases.
It’s their work, that will provide the necessary information to create public opinion, and provide momentum for positive change.
Why Did The Media Become The Story?
That little girl’s death is the story and, 99 times out of a hundred, it would have been the only story, had it not been for a highly unusual, and somewhat bizarre incident, spun off at the scene of that fatality.
The police attending such an incident, naturally, have serious concerns for the safety of both pedestrians and drivers in the immediate vicinity. They need to secure the area quickly; both to prevent the chaotic movement of traffic, and to ensure the integrity of their subsequent investigation. Witnesses must be identified. Evidence must be preserved. Order must be restored.
Those concerns, unquestionably, must take precedence. And most journalists, understand that.
They go to the scene, not to interfere with police procedure, but to simply do their own jobs.
Occasionally, they arrive before first responders do, and begin to take photographs, or talk to people who may have seen what happened. But when police do show up in these situations, and ask media members to move back, they usually comply. There may be some occasional haggling over how far back they must move; but, for the most part, police directives are respected.
Over time, this interaction has developed into an informal protocol that generally works for both groups. The police secure an area large enough to carry out an efficient, and safe investigation, and mark it off with yellow tape. Journalists, acknowledge the priority of police requirements, and establish themselves in positions outside the tape that will allow them to keep an eye on proceedings, while still providing reasonable access to authorities, witnesses, possible family members, or parties who were, perhaps, directly involved in the accident. In the vast majority of cases, this arrangement works perfectly.
As long as media members stay outside of the tape, and do not directly interfere with emergency proceedings, they are not breaking any laws. We could debate the propriety of media presence endlessly, but legally, they have a right to be there. And for the reasons mentioned above, they should be there. So the arrests of two journalists who were doing their jobs, and respecting that protocol was unusual, to say the least.
There is no law that guarantees personal privacy to anyone in a public area. If it can be seen from a public space, the media does not require permission to take photographs. Not even your permission, should you happen to be in the picture, incidentally. If an average citizen of any stripe can see the same thing that a media photographer might see, from the same public location then, under the law, it’s fair game. Even if what’s unfolding is tragic, embarrassing, emotionally painful, illegal, or graphic.
Only once can I remember a member of the media intentionally breeching the boundary of yellow tape, with an intent to push himself into the centre of the unfolding events. It was at a fatal house fire. The offender was a freelance photographer whose lens was inadequate for the particular circumstances and, rather than return to his car for another piece of equipment ( if he had one ) , decided to compensate by moving in. The incursion lasted approximately ten seconds. As soon as he crossed the line, other journalists and photographers outside the tape began to shout at him to get back behind the tape. The commotion immediately attracted the attention of the nearest cop, who firmly made it clear that the offender should return to his original position, or face the consequences.
Why Are The Rules Changing?
Over the years, that boundary of yellow tape has been pushed farther and farther away from the immediate scene, not out of any concern for safety, or preservation of evidence, but simply because police have decided that they don’t want media involvement.
I personally, have experienced the somewhat surrealistic situation in which police have marked off an area with boundary tape and held the media at bay, while local residents, passers-by, and “tragedy tourists” who troll accident scenes; show up to see what’s going on and roam freely, up and down the street behind the tape, cell-phone cameras in hand!
Such uneven, unilateral, or personal allowances made by cops at the scene, threaten the effectiveness of the long-established protocol between police and media, for obvious reasons.
So to, do incidents in which police intentionally use their vehicles, hands, or bodies to block the lenses of photographers who have complied with the tape boundary, and are otherwise just doing their jobs.
But to go so far as to confiscate equipment that has been left unattended for a moment, and then arrest the photographer for being rightfully upset by that clearly illegal seizure, ( as witnesses claim happened in this case ) is totally unreasonable, and an indefensible abuse of authority.
To misuse authority in such a way motivated simply by emotion, or for reasons of personal belief, is worse.
It is not the job of police officers to determine editorial boundaries, or mete out moral judgment.
So, when they do, it not only creates a situation that is unnecessarily adversarial, but also wastes the time and resources of other police officers who are conducting far more vital tasks at the scene.
The standard, yellow tape protocol was developed, and continues to survive, simply because it works.
One Last Word …
Since the initial incident nearly four months ago, Jasmin Hanif, the little girl killed in the accident, has been honoured with a memorial plaque, and a pair of unique park benches near the local splash-pad where she once played. Her family, is still struggling with her loss. And the City of Hamilton has installed new lights, pedestrian warning signs, and speed limit reminders, along the stretch of road where Jasmin was struck and killed.
David Ritchie, one of the photographers arrested that day, still awaits a court decision in his case. He continues to work. He continues to go to crime and accident scenes where first responders are present. He has never had a single confrontation like this one, either prior to, or following that day.
Finally, let me make a personal point about the mindset of any journalist sent to such a tragic scene. Most of us, would rather be somewhere else, doing anything other than intruding on the very real grief of victims, and their families. We are human beings too.
I have seen seasoned reporters openly weep both at accident scenes, and after listening to particularly disturbing testimony in a court case. And, I myself am still occasionally haunted by visions of an accident scene that claimed the lives of six teenagers in a speeding car, when it rammed into a train at a level crossing in Milton, more than 30 years ago.
True Journalists are not there “for the thrill of it”. They are there because there is a job that needs to be done.