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EDITORIAL: Photo leads to outrage, discussion on highway safety following fatality

The Rocky Mountain Outlook published a story and photo Sunday morning that raised concerns of it being insensitive and disrespectful, generated discussion on the need for increased public safety and left many questions on why it was posted. The photo

The Rocky Mountain Outlook published a story and photo Sunday morning that raised concerns that it was insensitive and disrespectful, generated discussion on the need for increased public safety and left many questions on why it was posted.

The photo shows a tarp, four cones surrounding it and an RCMP vehicle. It is jarring and shows the realistic outcome of safety threats by the highway each and every day in the Bow Valley.

But, why use it? Why not a photo of the RCMP vehicle or an RCMP logo?

Newsrooms have constant discussions on ethical issues. Those talks range from asking what is the journalistic purpose, is it relevant, is it too graphic, what are professional ethical guidelines, who is the audience, is it in the greater public interest and many more.

To answer those questions involves discussions with people in and out of the journalism field. As a newsroom, we discussed the photo Sunday morning before publishing, Sunday evening, Monday morning, but also throughout Tuesday and Wednesday. We regularly discussed the photo internally and externally during the week and will likely continue to do so in the months and years to come.

As editor, I reviewed articles and information on journalism-centric websites such as the Nieman Lab, Poynter, J-Source, examined the Canadian Association of Journalists code of ethics. I also reached out to other editors, professors and journalists, but also people in and out of the industry and in the community.

Any decision, whether made in print or online, is one that should never be taken lightly – and it wasn't.

When something is put in print, it is effectively set in stone. With the digital side, it means it can be shared across the world in a matter of seconds. And because of the international influence of the valley, the readership of the Outlook has a much higher audience across the world than most media outlets.

The job of a journalist is to serve the public interest, help and inform the community-wide discussion, report factual information and tell the news – both good and bad.

It can often mean posting an image such as this. It’s a difficult decision made at the Outlook by previous editors such as in 2011 during a shooting as well as numerous fatal rescues or vehicle collisions in Kananaskis Country and Banff National Park. It’s also hard choices made by regional media in Calgary, nationally and by media across the world.

The photo of two-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, images coming daily from Ukraine, nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from her napalmed village in the Vietnam War, the falling man during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and countless others have stood the test of time and been used to highlight the harsh reality faced.

What we do has to be looked at through a community-wide lens and while horrifying, it can capture the truth showing the reality of a situation. Many of the photos we publish are ones showing happy moments, but tragically there are moments an image can cause a story to hit home greater than words ever can.

But what happens when it’s a local that people know? Does it change if it’s a tourist visiting the community or a seasonal worker here for less than a year?

The human side should also never be forgotten.

Because of this collision, there’s one less person in our community. It means one less friend, loved one and a bright and promising future that will never be met.

The community is a weakened place because of this.

When the decision was made, it was not done in an unthoughtful manner, but one of great thought and understanding there would be significant pushback. This editorial isn't intended to change anyone's mind since people can come to their own conclusion, but to help in understanding our process.

A former Associated Press journalist now with Vanity Fair – Anthony Breznican – once stated when discussing such photos that when the public is confronted with such images, it forces people to face the horror and find a solution. It’s only then can people have the right to look away.

The inherent risk of safety issues along the Trans-Canada Highway has long been talked about. Whether it’s improving fencing, a pedestrian bridge, or better pedestrianizing the overpass to Harvie Heights, the issues have always been there.

A pedestrian bridge has been discussed for more than 15 years and highway safety for both humans and wildlife has been a consistent priority for decades in the community.

If a person stands at the Benchlands Trail overpass and counts the number of people darting across the highway, it won’t take overly long to get to double digits.

Is a bridge the best path forward or should resources be invested in having sound barrier walls – that also act as physical barriers – constructed on either side of the highway to prevent both humans and wildlife travelling across one of the busiest stretch of highways in Alberta.

A photo can bring another element to the reality of years of community concern and can show the real consequences.

We used a different photo for the follow-up since the story is evolving from the initial collision to now discussion for other safety measures. Unfortunately, it's situations like these that enact change.

For example, a cyclist getting hit in 2007 led to the Legacy Trail construction being expedited; people getting hit crossing the highway near Cougar Creek led to the pedestrian underpass in 2011; and vehicle collisions with animals – mainly the significant one in 2019 – led to the wildlife overpass near Lac Des Arcs starting a few weeks ago.

The public has shown an interest to find answers. It’s up to the community, levels of government and local organizations to come to the table and have difficult discussions to find solutions.

The cost will be high and the discussions difficult, but the loss of human life or lives will always be worth more.