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Column: Tough decisions
Martin Cahn (2019).jpg
Martin L. Cahn

As both a writer for and the editor of this newspaper, I have to make a myriad of decisions every day. Some of them are innocuous, such as how a story should be placed on a particular page. Some of them are much tougher.

Wednesday, Thursday and today included several tough decisions revolving around our coverage -- including on today’s front page -- of a death in the Walmart parking lot.

When I went to the scene in the middle of the afternoon, I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on. I could see five or six Camden Police Department (CPD) vehicles, although there may have been more that were unmarked. The S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) showed up after a while.

All I could see initially were the police vehicles. As I moved closer, I discovered a fairly non-descript white four-door car parked in an unusual fashion: sideways, up against a guard rail that keeps people from going down an embankment toward the Wateree River. Also unusual: the car had a yellow caution or crime scene tape around it.

Using my iPhone, I took a number of pictures of the scene, mostly to capture what officers, including CPD Chief Joe Floyd, were doing.

One of those pictures is the one we used on our news alert on Facebook and on our website. It appears again on today’s front page.

It shows a group of officers, including Floyd, in a tight circle next to a patrol car. One officer is standing apart from the others at the rear of the sideways-parked car to the right side of the photo.

Keep in mind that, as I was taking this and other photos, I had no idea of exactly what the police were investigating. An ambulance had left a short time earlier. It was easy to presume for a moment that a victim of some type had been taken to the hospital, and that the car was simply some type of focus of whatever investigation the police were conducting.

A moment or two later, however, as I moved further around the perimeter of the scene, I realized I could just make out a body on the opposite side of the car. I quickly stepped back -- I’m actually rather squeamish -- to a point where I could be sure I couldn’t see any part of the body.

I then immediately looked back at the pictures I had taken and was relieved to see that none of them, especially the one I was pretty sure I wanted to use, showed the deceased in any way.

When Floyd spoke to me about an hour later, I described the photo I had taken. He appeared to have no problem with it and did not tell me not to use it or even ask to see it.

Shortly after he spoke to me, I posted our first breaking news alert on Facebook regarding the death and investigation. At that point, we knew exactly this: The CPD and SLED were investigating the circumstances of a death in the Walmart parking lot. That was it.

It wasn’t until later, as rumors began to abound about exactly who the person was and what had happened that anyone made any negative comment about the picture. Several people on Facebook complained that it was disrespectful to the victim and their family to show any portion of the car.

We responded by respectfully disagreeing and that we would only consider changing out or modifying the picture if asked to by law enforcement or someone we could positively identify as a family member.

Sometime on Wednesday night, someone who fit that description did contact us and ask us to remove or change the picture.

It wasn’t until mid-morning Thursday -- when Kershaw County Coroner David West officially released the name of the deceased -- that we could know for sure that the person who contacted us was who they said they were.

I spoke with our publisher and we decided to stick with our original decision: to use the picture, as taken, despite the comments on Facebook and the family member’s request.

We feel that the photograph portrays the scene and the officers who responded to it in a respectful way without denigrating the victim especially since it does not show any part of their body.

It was a tough decision. As a member of the community in which I report, I am very sympathetic to how people react to certain stories and images. I understand why the family and others disagree with our decision, I really do.

Yet, telling the real news -- the stories -- of Kershaw County can include things that are ugly, distasteful or against the sensibilities of certain segments of the population or individuals.

When I wrote this column early Thursday afternoon, I only knew what was printed in today’s front page story: the name, age and hometown of the victim, as West officially provided, that she had been shot and that her body was undergoing an autopsy.

What we still don’t know is exactly what happened. The photograph does not change the facts we know or lack of other facts.

We know some will disagree, but we stand with our choice.