Where Is the Line That The Press Mustn’t Cross?

Some readers no doubt come from families where medicine is a tradition. I hail from humbler stock: a family full of journalists. In 1966, when I was 16, I woke up one morning to see on page one of the Chicago Sun-Times a photograph of my dad with his arms around a woman who was not his wife. And oddly, my mother seemed proud about it.

My late father, Robert W. Kelley, was a staff photographer for the weekly Life magazine. He had been assigned the ongoing story of a New Jersey truck driver’s attempt to break the world’s free-fall record by jumping from an airplane and then waiting perilous minutes before activating a balloon that would slow his descent. In a morally questionable project, Life was collaborating with daring jumper Nick Piantanida, outfitting him with remote-control cameras (which my father set up, with special tape to protect them against high-altitude cold), and in effect encouraging him to risk his life. On his third try, as a Life column headline explained, “The Cameras Worked, But the Balloon Failed.” Piantanida ended up in a coma. And my dad appeared in an Associated Press photo embracing Piantanida’s wife over a caption that said she was being “comforted by a family friend.” At that moment, Life’s need for a picture of the grieving wife came second, and my father was a human being first.

As troubling as Life’s participation in that venture may seem to some, photojournalism has become even more controversial in the years since. And the line my father drew–the line that says, “Here the zeal to record stops, and compassion begins”–is becoming as hard to discern as the original shape of a certain Mercedes in the Paris night.

We pose a different issue about journalism on page 61, where a New York Post reporter tells how he came to prepare an investigative series with headlines such as “Managed Care Casualties Enough To Make You Sick.” The press must–and should–appeal to emotion. But where are the boundaries of fairness?

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