A dubious request

By Matt Stacionis

The Orlando Sentinel has successfully managed to cheapen the already dying credibility of the newspaper industry.

Through the use of Florida’s public records law, autopsy reports and photographs are public record unless they are part of an active criminal investigation, which has allowed the Sentinel to ask for the pics of racing great Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy. In a statement, the Sentinel tried to defend the right to post pictures of Earnhardt’s dead body in the newspaper and on their Web site.

“Newspapers are not always popular,” the statement said. “Sometimes newspapers have to ask hard questions; this is one of those times.”

What’s the tough question? A picture of a dead NASCAR driver is not something children need to wake up to in the morning. Furthermore, there is nothing that the public can gain from these photos.

The news that the public can actually get from these photos is similar to stories about Jennifer Lopez being rumored to a link with Puffy’s bodyguard. It’s pointless. Earnhardt, who died during the Dayton 500 on Feb. 18, and his family, should be left in peace.

“This is the first time I’ve spoken in public since we’ve lost Dale,” Teresa Earnhardt said, reading from a statement. “Honestly, I’m not very comfortable being here. It’s too soon. But this issue is of vital importance & not just to my family & but to anyone ever faced with being exploited after losing a loved one.”

The cause of Earnhardt’s death has been reported and really is no longer an issue. The photos won’t provide the reader with any new information about his death. The photos will not give the reader anything that he or she does not already know. And most of all, the photos violate the privacy of the deceased Dale Earnhardt and his family.

Journalists do have a job that poses difficult ethical questions. They, like the Orlando Inquirer’s statement said, do have to ask tough questions. But they also are people. They do have to go home at night and live with themselves as human beings. The Earnhardt photo situation is something that should bother them.

Everyone has a family and, in most cases, would not want autopsy photos released. True, they probably wouldn’t want a revealing story about their family released, but most journalists would understand the reasoning and arguments. This is something that they can’t argue.

The worst part about the Orlando Sentinel’s request for the photos is that it now cheapens every other journalists’ claim to a request of the Freedom of Information Act. Since the Earnhardt case is very public and has a huge following of supporters either way, the Orlando Sentinel is setting a public image for all newspapers.

When people hear that a newspaper is going to court to gain access to a document, they will probably be compelled to think of Teresa Earnhardt’s tear-filled plea to the Orlando Sentinel. And you can’t blame them.

Throughout time, the media has been the watchdog for the public. They have reported information that has changed the lives of people in given communities and sometimes even the state of the nation.

It’s not perfect, as seen in the 2000 early presidential election call, but it has always tried to be. As a watchdog, the media also has a responsibility to its audience. This is, in another sense, a violation of that trust. As said before, children read the Orlando Sentinel, which means that parents will have to take time at 8 a.m. to explain what those photos mean to their children before they’re off to school.

It’s something children should not have to endure, and thus far Judge Joseph Will has said that the photos have no “bona fide newsworthiness” and could cause the family “additional anguish and grief.” If this sticks, the pictures will not run in the Sentinel or any other media element.

What if a photo of a raped and stabbed woman, whose case had been solved, was in line to be printed? They wouldn’t print it, so why do it with the Earnhardt photos?

It’s really not that different.