Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Photo Standards


Below are four photographs that were taken of the Jan. 22, 1987, suicide of Pennsylvania treasurer R. Budd Dwyer. The photos were taken at a press conference Dwyer had called the day before he was to be sentenced for receiving a kickback of $300,000. Would you run any of these photos in your newspaper? If so, which one(s) would you choose and why?

If I were the editor of a newspaper, I would run a select few photos of Mr. Dwyer rather than running none. Photos complement text. Photos illustrate stories. Photos convey emotions. If it is a newsy photo, run it unless there is a compelling reason not to. What is more, the grisly suicide in public was a Page One story that day. Almost everyone heard about the news by the end of the day and even watched it live. For those who watched the footage, no photo could be possibly worse; for those who missed it, they naturally expected to see something visual rather than simply a story that had already been told by word-of-mouth.

However, of the four photos, I would only run 1a and 2a. The facial expressions help the reader imagine how he felt in the last a few seconds. The background shows the ambiance. The postures relate to the news. Moreover, these two are not visually disturbing or suggestive.

By contrast, 3a and 4a are inappropriate for print. Looking solely at the third one, one might even mistakenly think Mr. Dwyer is being playful, until they know the whole story. If children see the photo, they might think it is funny, and would be inclined to mimic or imitate the example, which is very dangerous or even fatal. The fourth story is quite offensive. Readers can easily have a gory picture in their mind on seeing the picture. Moreover, since the look of the suicide is not decent, running it is disrespectful to the dead.


Below are several photographs that may or may not have been published in the past. In your blog, please discuss these pictures. Which of these photos, if any, would you publish? Why or why not? What criteria do you use to make a decision? Under what circumstances would you run the photos? Consider whether the event happened locally. Does where or how you play the photo have any bearing on your decision? Specify one photo that made you wrestle with your decision the most and talk about the many issues you wrestled with the most on making that decision.
1. A boy grieves for his dog, which was killed by a car.

2. A rescue worker tries to console a family who has just lost a son in a drowning accident.

3. A disgruntled employee of a newspaper’s printing plant walked in with an AK-47 assault rifle and in a half an hour killed seven, wounded 13 and then killed himself. The man in the photo is one of the victims.

4. This boy was playing on a spike fence when he fell. Rescue workers had to cut a section of the fence to free him. He was OK.

5. This photo was taken from a fire escape looking down on a riot during a Fat Tuesday celebration in Seattle. The photographer saw the woman, who in typical Mardi Gras fashion, was asked to raise her top. When she refused, the men around her began to reach at her at tear her clothes. Her face has been obscured to protect her identity.

With regard to the second batch of photos at issue, I will run the first one without much hesitation. Even though a juvenile is involved and identified in the photo, running it does not bring him into public contempt, disgrace or ridicule in the slightest, as grief can be felt by the reader. The concern for disrespect for the dead is not as strong either, since the dog is not in terrible shape.

As for the rest four photos, I do have varying degrees of difficulty making the decision.

The first consideration is for the juveniles. In the second photo, several juveniles are identified, especially including the young victim. The published photo would cast much longer a shadow over the juveniles on their road to their adulthood than on those over age. They are yet to be psychologically mature. Exposing them to the publicity, especially negatively, is beyond what they can possibly withstand and can at worst pervert their characters.

The second consideration is for the victims. Most victims involve here are in bad shape and do not look decent or dignified in the photos. Showing their images under these circumstances is the sign of lack of respect for them. No one wants to look horrible, terrifying or pathetic at any time, let alone at the moment of being afflicted. For those who survive after the photos are taken, they have to face public opinion, or even ridicule.

The third consideration is for the family or those who lost their loved ones. While they are going through great pangs of pain brought by the death of their beloved, seeing the photos in print cause further harm to them. As in the case of the second photo, it was a very personal moment. The fact that the family was taken a picture of in a public place after a high-profile news event does not mean they are willing to be seen afterwards in print.

The fourth consideration is for the reader. Like I said in analyzing the case of Mr. Dwyer, it is important to take into account whether the photos are disturbing, offensive, suggestive or indecent, what impact will it have on the reader. It is not hard to picture a reader frowning and uttering "Ouch!" on seeing Picture 4. Nor is it improbable that some teenagers would grin wickedly at Picture 5.

But on the other hand, we also need to weigh the fundamental journalistic principle: to seek truth and report it. Picture 2, 3 and 5 are all concerning the community that the reader lives in. They alert or alarm people. Publishing Picture 3 and 5 even has a potential to help the communities involved. There is too much violence, and people are in danger of become numbed. Showing the photos can in a way give people an opportunity of introspection and soul-searching, and hopefully, changing their behavior and averting tragedies.

In conclusion, I would run Picture 1, and run Picture 2 if my newspaper does not serve the local community where the drowning took place (so that the juveniles cannot be recognized by most of my readers). I would not run Picture 3, 4, or 5.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Why does Phelps apologize to Chinese specially?

Here is a transcript of a 52-second video apology from Phelps to Chinese posted on most major Chinese news portal sites:

  To my Chinese friends,
  As many of you know, I recently engaged in behavior which was regrettable and not what people have come to expect from me.
  The past few days have been tough for me, but I've received support and encouragement online from so many Chinese friends.
  I will learn from these mistakes, train hard, and make you proud again.
  To the young people of China, please learn a lesson from this. Be positive in life, and do the right things.
  I've had so many great experiences in China over the past few years, and have enjoyed learning about your culture and your history.
  But it's the warmth and forgiveness in the messages I've received from China that has really lifted me up over the past few days.
  Thanks again for your support and encouragement. I look forward to returning to China soon.  

The headline of the Chinese news entry translates to "Phelps apologizes to Chinese fans." The content is simply the translation or paraphrase of his statement, saying that he feels deeply remorseful that he failed to be a good model for Chinese youth.

Quite a number of Chinese web users who read this article on the portal sites felt flattered and glad that Phelps respected China and Chinese fans so much. They posted comments on the discussion boards, like "He apologized to Chinese specially because China is the land on which he realized his dream. He has special feelings for her;" "We accept your apology!"

But is it a wishing thinking that Phelps directed his apology at Chinese out of his respect for China? Some liberal Chinese online media raised a question in their headlines: "Why does Phelps apologize to Chinese specially" after issuing a public apology already? Inside the stories, these media pointed out that Phelps had become a hot cake after he took home so many golds from the Games. He had been tagged because of the potential commercial success he could bring. Many Chinese companies or subsidiaries of international companies in China contacted him hoping for his appearance in their commercials or advertisements. This "marijuana" thing hurt his image and might indirectly affect the business of the companies he spoke for. "Half of what motivated him to apologize to China might be the pressure he felt from sponsors while the other half is his sincerity," according to the website of Beijing Communications Radio.

But The New York Times website's headline "Mazda Has Michael Phelps Apologize to China" definitely says something different. Two impressions naturally rose:1) A profit-making company engaged in; 2) Phelps was forced to kowtow to China. Inside the story (, no one from the automaker was interviewed. Not any one was sourced except for Phelps himself and a statement from the automaker that says nothing about the correlation between the apology and the company. The story says, "Mazda apparently decided an apology to the Chinese would suffice. " Is it really so apparent that Phelps was coerced into the apology? Journalists often say "If your mother says she loves you, check it." Therefore, if you think Phelps was manipulated by his sponsor, prove it. Taking it for granted and making the reader do the same is not fair to either the automaker, Phelps, or the reader.

We do not know whether Phelps' apology is wholehearted or halfhearted. We just know we want a fully reported instead of a half-reported story.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Today's in-class headline writing really bothered me. I edited the lead of the "Single-car accident" story into "A 26-year-old Paxton farmer was critically injured early this morning when his car crashed into a pole at Green and First Streets, Champaign." But when I was to write the headline for the story, I got stuck there. The lead is supposed to contains the key elements of the story. So is the headline. Therefore, there is usually some overlap of the content between the two. However, the lead comes immediately after the headline. In order to avoid repitition, I would try to use different words in headline. What's the substitute for "injure"? "Hurt"? "Hurt" seems to be more about feeling and emotion. "Wound"? "Wound" sounds too negligible. "Harm"? It has less action. "Damage"? Rarely said of a person as a whole. And how can I express "critical" at the same time? I racked my brain and finally came up with "in bad shape". I did not know if it is appropriate; literally, it sounds to me as if a person is disfigured. The online dictionary says "shape" can mean physical condition. So I went with it.

My headline reads:

Speeding driver

now in bad shape

I know it is a crappy headline. The headline should be no doubt in present tense.Why "now"? The fact is, without "now", the second line looks too short. I just used it for the sake of taking space. Could I rewrite it? Honestly, I consider the only useful information in this story is that "the driver was too fast" and "he was in critical condition." It was really hard for me to come up with a version that much different from this one. What's more, it had never occurred to me before that 18 points per line is such a demanding task. I easily exceeded the length. I struggled with it for about ten minutes until the bell rang. Then I decided to let it be. At least I learned one thing: headline writing is never easy. Those pun headlines need more wit.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

When keyboards clattered, the press kept silent

Is throwing shoes at a political speaker the latest fad? U.S. President George W. Bush nearly got two shoes from a Iraqi reporter while speaking last December. Only three days ago, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was received the same way when he was delivering speech at Cambridge University on the Britain leg of his European tour.

I first noticed the happening when most of my friends on, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook, changed their personal messages to “China cannot be toyed with!””Bravo, Premier Wen!” Some even quoted his response to the shoe-throwing, “this kind of dirty trick cannot stop the friendship between the Chinese and the British people.” The link to the footage already was being widely shared by users.

Western people might be more accustomed to political figures being disrupted and even attacked by dissidents; China, where harmony is the core philosophical and political conception, discipline is advocated ever since Confucius’ time, and little open opposition is allowed, is not. But what also merits attention is, unlike American people in Bush’s case poking fun at their president, Chinese have a great admiration for their premier that is beyond imagination. He is the nation's most popular figure and has earned himself the nickname Grandpa Wen. This shoe-thrower obviously picked the wrong target. So soon after that happened, agitated Chinese poured out their indignation on the internet, “Brits, let’s see which country has more shoes,” one comment read on

I was curious about how the government would comment on this, so I visited a very authoritative news portal site (its English version is, whose server is in China, but found no inkling of anything wrong. The headline section only featured a story titled “Premier Wen gave a speech at Cambridge, addressing global economic issues,” and posted the full text of his speech. All other news sites I visited were all the same. At the same time, I found that my contacts’ comments denouncing the shoe-throwing were one by one deleted by the website administrator.

This amused me. It does not make any sense that all news websites keep mum about such an eye-catching event while so many people are talking about it. It is also absurd if you censor information that is highly in support of, rather than opposed to, a domestic political leader. The only one explanation is that political leaders in China cannot be embarrassed.

But on the next day, all news related to Premier Wen’s speech gave a little hint. The syndicated news story said, “there was some disturbance in the middle of Premier Wen’s speech, but the troublemaker who conducted this mean act was condemned by all listeners in the auditorium.” Still, it left out key details, including that a shoe had been thrown.

Those in the know were so infuriated by the act and so eager to find an emotional outlet. Those in the dark were so tantalized by the vague words that they wanted to find out more. Therefore, it becomes recently the hottest topic, even though there was little controversy or debate during the discussion. I guess it took the government three days to finally realize it is impossible to cover the facts in this information age, which explains the third version of the same news on the following day: “Premier Wen disrupted by a shoe-throwing man; the British side apologized.”

As a supporter for Premier Wen, I felt angry with the shoe-throwing act. But as a journalist, I never think turning a deaf ear and keeping people in the dark is a right attitude or good strategy for a government when faced with discontent and criticism. Having to come clean after failing to cover up can only make a government look stupid and dishonest.