HELENA — Tears welled as Maura Gruber recounted Friday how she learned that the love of her life had perished in a traffic accident. Social media delivered her the news on that fateful day last month when her local newspaper published a photo on Facebook of an overturned vehicle.
The photo of the vehicle was taken from a distance, but it was enough for her to reach a horrific conclusion. The vehicle belonged to her boyfriend, Kristopher Harrison, who had been gone all morning, she said. When she tried to reach him on Facebook, she saw an image of his car on the social media site, along with a story from the Helena Independent Record about a fatal accident. The article did not give the name of a victim, but Gruber already feared the worst.
She was devastated and angry, she told a state legislative committee that is wading into an emotional First Amendment battle as it considers barring news outlets from posting photos of fatal accidents on social media before authorities can notify next of kin.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Amanda Curtis of Butte, seeks to force news organizations to delay posting such photos on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Curtis said the bill does not include photos published on news sites. And it would only restrict news organizations with social media accounts — and not members of the general public who might post similar photos on social media.
The Independent Record apologized for publishing the photo on social media..
Families recounted to the House Judiciary Committee the trauma of learning from social media about tragic crashes that claimed loved ones.
Representatives from the news media expressed their regret over the incidents, but they argued that the proposal amounted to prior restraint. The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with journalists when government officials have sought to suppress publication of information.
News media outlets generally withhold the names of fatal victims of accidents and crime until law enforcement officials have released names.
Rep. Jenny Eck, a Democrat from Helena, suggested that newsrooms should delay publication of photos much like they withhold names until families are informed of fatalities
“News agencies are pushing back when they’re called out on this, and they’re saying they have every right to do it,” Eck said. “As legislators, we can’t continue to allow this to go on if they aren’t going to monitor themselves.”
Social media have provided journalists an immediate platform to publish information. While many newsrooms have developed social media guidelines, those policies don’t necessarily cover situations like the ones the Montana bill attempts to address.
“In Montana, the vast majority of news organizations are very careful in what they will print, including not trying to print any photos that are going to include identifiable information,” said John MacDonald, the executive director of the Montana Newspaper Association.
He added that legal precedents clearly demonstrate “the government can’t tell the press what and when to publish.”
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