'If it bleeds, it leads': Putting tragedy front and centre

"I WAS 17 when I attended my first fatal crash."

Adam Hourigan had just finished school and taken a job as a photographer at his local newspaper, The Daily Examiner.

He'd been in the new role for a month when he was sent to the job every journalist dreads.

"It was just down off Rogan Bridge. The guy had actually come off the bridge near the bank and had gone through a tree branch," he said.

"It was a pretty awful sight, because it was one of the few times, I'd actually ever seen a body. You don't see bodies very often."

In 1995, film was hand processed and getting the perfect shot took more expertise than with today's digital technology.

The NSW Police forensic photographer was still five hours away when Adam arrived on scene.

"They (the police) approached me and said, 'You're from the Examiner, our guys are away, can you shoot some stuff for us because we need photos'," he said.

"I got led around the scene taking photos ... it's almost surreal really."

"Once you see it, you're shocked, but you stare at it for a while, it becomes unreal," he said.

"It's a weird thing to say ... you just do what you have to do, and you have to ignore the fact that it's a person."

Now, almost 24 years later the Walkley Award-winning photojournalist has been to more fatal crashes than he can count, and there is one blood-curdling thought that runs through his mind every time he heads to the next.

"You do the maths in your head, you know where the crash is. You'll make the phone calls on the way up there and check."

Adam's hometown, Maclean, sits on the Clarence River 50km north of Grafton and he is one of the few Daily Examiner journalists who was born and bred in the region he reports on.

 

Adam Hourigan
Adam Hourigan william long


"I've never been personally involved, that's really lucky for the number of crashes I've been to."

When a journalist arrives on the scene of a fatal crash the first thing they want is information, to find out if everyone is okay and what happened.

Media is kept away from the scene, and in Adam's experience maintaining that distance is critical.

"You're there to capture the scene but you don't want to become part of it," he said.

Adam has seen the news media industry undergo immense change since he first arrived in the Grafton newsroom, staff has thinned and deadlines have been abolished and replaced with constant 24-hour pressure on journalists to get the story and spread it.

"What we show is very shocking for a lot of people," he said.

"People say they don't want to see what's going on and we should censor ourselves.

"I don't think that's what people really want but they think they should say that.

"There's a real importance in showing people what's going on in a situation. To a point."

"I don't think we should be the people identifying dead people to family."

On October 21, 1989 the front page of The Daily Examiner was so chilling that the photo will no longer be published in the newspaper.

The day before media had swarmed the scene of a brutal bus and semi-trailer collision on the Pacific Highway. It was Australia's worst road accident at the time and killed 21 people.

In the foreground of the photo a tiger-striped blanket is spread over a stretcher, moving up the black and white photo is another stretcher, covered up. Nine stretchers are lined up on a paddock beside the Clarence River and surrounding them are police investigators, fire crew and paramedics.

"Seeing the pictures of those bodies at Cowper is a really important part of that coverage because it's such an outlier," Adam said.

 

The scene that many from the Clarence Valley will never forget. The Cowper Bus crash which occurred in the early hours of October 20, 1989.
The scene that many from the Clarence Valley will never forget. The Cowper Bus crash which occurred in the early hours of October 20, 1989. The Daily Examiner Archives

 

"Such an extraordinary event, such a tragedy like that, people need to be able to see the impact."

Raw and visceral tragedy is confronting in nature, it makes one want to look away. But then, do a double take to find out what happened.

Listen to Adam Hourgian's story in the latest episode of the Cowper podcast:

"You look back at the pictures from something like Cowper and it's very raw, you feel like you're in the scene, and I think that's really important to get across to people the gravity of a situation."

"That's what makes people build new roads or change something about seatbelt laws.

"It sounds horrible, but if people don't see that then they don't feel there's any need because it doesn't affect them."

The hate, disdain and vilification of the media for covering fatal car crashes is something Adam knows all too well.

"I think people project a lot of their grief. They're looking for someone to lash out at and we're a very easy target because we put it front and centre."

The online revolution has enabled publications to understand the exact content their audience want to see. Website metrics report who is clicking on what, when and how long they spend on a story.

 

Adam Hourigan photographs Cowper bus crash survivors Angela Ormesher and Glenn-Michael Askew.
Adam Hourigan photographs Cowper bus crash survivors Angela Ormesher and Glenn-Michael Askew. Adam Hourigan

 

"If it bleeds, it leads. It sounds horrible but it's only true because of our metrics, not because we want it to be front and centre, but our readers show us that," Adam said.

"Circulations go up, online views go up - so people are genuinely interested in these events because they are tragedies and they are outlying events and they're something that's not supposed to happen."

Adam has seen a lot more than the average person, but he can't fathom what it's like for the people first on the scene.

"We're always that step behind the responders and the police," he said.

"We get paid to go out and do this. Especially the volunteers, I wonder how they do it."



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