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.

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