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Editor’s blog: Did we treat elderly man fairly?

An interesting online debate ensued after Saturday’s Times of Malta published a front page story entitled: ‘83-year-old admits hit-and-run in Lija’. This was a follow up to an item carried the previous day that showed dramatic CCTV footage of one moving car virtually mounting a parked other, and the driver failing to stop at the scene after it had done so.

However, a question was posed in a variety of online forums over the weekend: should we have published such a story, on the front page, or were we victimising a vulnerable old man?

No one at this media organisation was surprised that such a debate ensued, because precisely the same discussion was held in our newsroom the day before we published the story. Opinions were divided and arguments were put forward. One person had to decide. That person was me.

No one is infallible, least of all those of us who work in the media industry. But sometimes people on the outside are too quick to make accusations about knee-jerk decisions being made – or improperly motivated ones, which ought to be dismissed with the contempt they deserve – because they were not part of the discussion and cogitation that went into them.

The truth is that there is probably no wrong or right answer to this question, but, even if people still disagree, it may be helpful to explain the rationale behind publishing the story and its prominence.

The first consideration when it comes to deciding whether to print or broadcast something is whether it is topical, exceptional and in the public interest, though these factors are not always all present.

On Friday Times of Malta had published pictures and footage of the incident not only because the images were dramatic – many traffic accidents fall into that category – but because the driver, whose identity at the time was unknown, had carried on going. That pushed it into the exceptional category. Furthermore, since failing to stop at the scene of an accident is a criminal offence, we deemed it was a matter of public interest.

The same day, one of our journalists ascertained the address at which the car was registered and knocked on the door of a house (the car was parked outside). A man answered, who immediately admitted his involvement in the incident and went on to set out his version of events. He said the police had been in touch with him and that he failed to realise he had hit another car. His reaction was faithfully reproduced/broadcast.

Since we had carried a story informing readers of the incident, we felt it was our duty to provide an update on how it had developed. Was it front page news? That is always a subjective question and is dependent on a list of factors that is too long to go into here. However, given that images of the incident were on the front page that same day, and had generated significant interest, logic suggested that the follow-up should be given the same prominence.

However, that in itself was not enough. Other considerations came into play: Somebody could have been injured in this accident. It took place in broad daylight with no adverse weather conditions. The driver had left the scene. We felt this warranted an explanation. The fact that the man was returning from a medical appointment made the need for that more pertinent – not less.

Moreover, given the man’s explanation (he said he didn’t realise he had hit the other vehicle) combined with his age, the incident threw up a broader question: was he fit to be driving the vehicle? And, are our driving regulations for people of a certain age adequate for today’s needs?

My view was that these were very relevant factors – because far beyond any personal incident is the overriding priority for society to minimise the risk of a repeat that might have far worse consequences.

Were we taking advantage of an elderly gentleman? We would never set out with the intention to do such a thing. Our decision, rightly or wrongly, was based on purely objective criteria.

In any case, it is hugely unfair on the growing elderly community to automatically assume they are incapable of rational thought, or that they cannot take responsibility for their actions. And it is certainly not our fault that this man didn’t fit into the stereotype – tattooed 18-year-old, with piercings and all, as furry dice dance on the dashboard to the sound of a deafening beat – of who should be involved in this kind of incident.

However, bringing fallibility back into the argument once again, I would be the first to admit that the front page heading could have been more empathetic. Something like ‘I didn’t realise I hit another car’ would probably have been more appropriate... at least until the police complete their investigation into the incident.

So there it is. This is not a statement to say ‘we were right’. Nor is it intended to be apologetic in tone. Publish and be damned, and all that. But it is hopefully an exposition that sheds some light on where we were coming from.

Steve Mallia is Editor-in-Chief at Times of Malta.

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