Pictures of Minors Driving 60 mph and Texting? What is the NYT Thinking?

08/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Blake Fleetwood Former reporter for the New York Times and Daily News; taught Political Science at NYU


It was a powerful story by Matt Richtel. It nabbed four out of six columns across the top left of the Sunday front page above the fold, and another two full pages inside.

It isn't often that you see a story receive such prominence in the New York Times. It's an important story. Cell phone use while driving probably causes thousands of needless deaths per year.

And the startling picture was even more unbelievable: a teenager driving at 60 miles an hour with both hands steadily gripping a phone, while the lone limb of a passenger reaches over to steer the speeding car.

The photo has a surrealistic quality.

At first glance it certainly looks staged. I thought it was an illustration - something that might be on the cover of New York Magazine, or Newsweek. The brilliant picture so perfectly captured the point of the piece.

Could the Times possibly have assigned the photographer to take a picture of minors engaging in what seems like incredibly risky behavior?

It certainly is against journalist ethics to stage news photos.

My watchdog curiosity led me to e-mail photographer Dan Gill. He said he shot the picture on another assignment for the NYT last November for a story about teenagers and HIV.

"I tagged along with three students and the driver was texting. It's not often we as journalists are allowed into someone's personal life.

"Is it safe? Probably not, but as journalists we are not here to judge or direct, only to observe and to tell the story"

Poynter Institute Ethics Leader Kelly McBride told me that "The picture begs a lot of questions that should have been answered in the caption. If it was taken for another story nine months ago that should have been noted."

Other blogs --- Photo District News and The Agitator --- have had similar questions.

• Was it set up?
• If it wasn't set up, how did the photographer get the picture?
• And should the photographer have told the teenage driver and passenger to cool it with the phone and drive safely?

Gill repeatedly stated that it's not really up to the photographer to be the parent.

But as the father of a teenager, just learning to drive, I certainly wouldn't want a NYT photographer to be sitting quietly in the back seat as he speeds down a highway at 60 mph with no hands on the wheel.

One NYT reader, Karen commented, "Dan Gill was either a moron or a liar. I found it hard to believe that an adult would willingly sit in the back of a car and let a teenager drive in a such a reckless manner. I showed the photo to someone else who suggested that perhaps the photo was a setup and that the car wasn't moving. But the speedometer shows 60+ mph and I don't think it was photoshopped.

"On looking further I got to wondering if the photographer paid the kids to do this in order to take the photograph. I find it hard to believe that a teenager would engage in this kind of behavior with an adult in the car without some kind of provocation. ... this one doesn't pass the smell test "