On That Railroad Photo And the Response It Got
As soon as I saw Glenn M. Sides' "Balancing Act" photograph on our front page of Feb. 15, showing a young woman walking on the railroad track near the Southern Pines depot, I knew from experience that The Pilot would get some grief.
And sure enough, the letters poured in. Well, two or three did. (Can two or three letters pour?) I also encountered a couple of in-person comments - one supportive, one not so. I have a personal reaction to this mini-tempest, as well as a journalistic one.
First, an important disclaimer: Though I spent 15 years being heavily involved in deciding what went on the front page of The Pilot, I no longer do that. As the semi-retired opinion editor, I now confine my attention to this section, with news decisions in the capable hands of Editor John Nagy and his staff, not to mention Publisher David Woronoff.
But I can say this: If it had been up to me, I surely would have put that nice, engaging photograph on the front page, even knowing some folks would cluck in disapproval.
"I was not pleased with Glenn Sides' photo," one reader complained, pointing out that the girl was "trespassing on private (railroad) property" and that "if a railroad police officer had seen her, he could have reprimanded her or fined her." He added: "People should not be encouraged to play or walk on railroad tracks. The potential for a serious accident and/or death is very great."
Another reader wrote:
"What is the image of the Sandhills that The Pilot is trying to convey? ... This photograph does a disservice to Moore County and its citizens. Why not focus on depicting a positive perception of Moore County as it moves forward?"
Yes, well. I actually thought the photo had a kind of wholesome, American quality about it. At least the girl wasn't pole-dancing or taking drugs.
I preferred the reaction of reader D.A. Demarco, whose letter appears elsewhere on this page. I commend it to your attention.
"For me," he writes, "the photo evoked memories of a time when children created their own recreation. No soccer mom chauffers with the SUV. ... I think that prior generations grew up to be hardier and more self-reliant than the current stock."
I fear that anyone who gets upset about the image of a carefree young lady taking a few steps along a track in the middle of town would be horrified to learn some of the things my cousins and I used to do during our relatively unsupervised summers on my grandfather's farm back in Missouri.
A Frisco track ran alongside the farm property. We naturally found it irresistible. Armed with .22 rifles, we would take increasingly long hikes along the railroad right of way that cut across those lovely Shoal Creek bottomlands. A time or two, those treks lasted the better part of a day, requiring us to arrange to have my grandmother or someone pick us up at the end of the day.
Even I cringe when I think that those jaunts sometimes included venturing out onto high trestles. (Don't try this at home, kids.)
A quarter-century later, while living in Shelby, three hours west of here, I used to take my elder son, Jacob, on numerous railroad walks, about which he was reminiscing just the other day. When I wrote a column about it at the time, the railroad didn't just write a letter - it sent a PR guy to my office to complain in person.
Yeah, I suppose railroad walks are dumb and sometimes dangerous. I haven't taken one for a long time. And yes, railroads are private corporate property. Still, trespassing on them doesn't seem exactly the same as breaking into someone's house, does it? And if that girl in the picture was trespassing, then aren't we all doing the same thing any time we walk across the track on our way from one side of Broad Street to the other?
As far as trying to "project a positive image" of the community - sorry, but that's just not what newspapers mostly do. If we put a bank robbery on the front page, does that mean we're encouraging it? We're here to portray life as it is, warts and all.
One of my favorite quotes in that regard is from an old-timey editor who declared, "If the Good Lord ain't too proud to let it happen, I ain't too proud to put it in the paper."
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story