If a photo is graphic or disturbing do you hold it or run it? Where do you draw the line?
A former student of mine (and current MSSU Chart editor-in-chief), Nathan Mills, is in his first semester of potentially making those calls. He posted the following to his Facebook page on Aug. 23:
“I’m always one to fight for impactful photos in journalism, but photos of bodies with sheets over them at the scene of a fatal accident is not appropriate.”
Such decisions have faced editors since the advent of photography. Often they spark lively debate and even heated arguments in the newsrooms that face that choice.
Earlier this month, the New York Times faced such a dilemma. The Old Gray Lady had a riveting and disturbing pic of a starving Somali child. It ran four columns wide on a six-column grid at the top of page one. Here is a link to a Huffington Post article in which NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller explains the decision and calls it “kind of a no-brainer.” The HP piece includes the NYT front page in question.
This pic is pretty gripping. So were Mathew Brady’s Civil War pictures. So was the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a Saigon execution during the Vietnam War. Likewise, the powerful image from that war of a burning child running from a Napalm strike. This link looks at these and other powerful Pulitzer winners.
Of the pics in the above link, only one was from an event in the United States. Do pictures become more palatable when they happen in distant places? Perhaps. And — especially if it is local — editors can plan on getting heat no matter what they decide.
Each photo has to be evaluated on its own merits and according to the existing circumstances. One favorite exercise I would employ with beginning college journalists is a good indicator of how difficult this process can be. I would present a photo of a graphic nature (usually one that ran in a publication) and ask them to be the editorial staff. If I did my job right in picking the image, they would usually vote to hold the photo.
Then, I would begin to give them more information. Circumstances, situation, location all play a role. Some would change their view, others held firm. This is just as it would be in a healthy newsroom. But the lesson to be learned was not their decision about the image. It was the process.