By Rob Bignell
During last week's column, I offered readers a challenge: You be the editor. Each week, this column will present an ethical or policy decision about news coverage that an editor might have to make. Readers are invited to share how they would handle the dilemma.
Last week's column offered a dilemma similar to one The Daily Triplicate faced during January with the deaths of high school freshman Josh Lacy and professional angler Chester Bolen: What pictures do we run as covering these passings, both of which were of high interest to readers?
Here's the dilemma the column presented:
A local elected official, who also was a well-known business leader, dies in a tragic car accident. A reporter and photographer are assigned to cover the funeral. The photographer returns with several pictures, including one taken near the grave with the widow crying and being embraced by her children. Do you:
A) Publish the photo of the mother and her children because it is the most compelling.
B) Choose a more routine photo showing pallbearers carrying the casket.
C) Just run a file mug shot of the deceased with the article.
A good number of readers responded that they liked the idea for the column, but had no idea what they would do! A couple of readers said they discussed the dilemma over the dinner table as a family, only to find that each of them disagreed about what was the best option.
But a couple of readers offered very definite views.
Neither chose A.
Nor did they chose B.
"Given the small town' of Crescent City," wrote local resident Christina Polidore, "I would choose C and run a photo of the deceased, preferably not a mug shot. Since the deceased was a business leader and elected official, there might be a photo of the person available from a community event.
"Crescent City is truly a small' town, in many more ways than physical size and rural location. Many people have long-standing relationships, even through generations. I would be sensitive to this reality. I also would not want to create sensation with the photograph, despite the tragedy.
"I would focus the story on the individual's contributions to the community and family."
Local writer and Daily Triplicate columnist Inez Castor agreed that neither A nor B were great ideas and nicely related her reasons to the recent news decisions we unfortunately had to face at The Daily Triplicate.
"Last week I found myself thinking of the Lacy family, and how the articles you've published will affect them in later years. The little kids in the family will, when they're older, see these articles (parents will have saved them all) and know that their big brother was honored by his community. They won't have to endure photos of their grieving parents, but can see that wonderful, last Christmas photo of their family, joyful and intact."
First, thanks to Christina and Inez for being bold enough to share their thoughts. They raise valid, well reasoned points.
And now my analysis. Their answers seem to presume that the feelings of those being covered is a factor in a news story, especially since we're in a smaller community. There's no doubt that good taste is a variable in why some editors would choose not to run a photo. Most journalists wouldn't consider the size of the community a factor, however, in their decision. After all, a family in San Francisco would feel that their privacy had been invaded just as much as a family from Crescent City or Klamath would.
In any case, most journalists would bristle at the notion that they should be concerned about the feelings of those we cover. Doing so would mean reporters no longer are being objective.
Perhaps such thinking alien to most reporters through the 1960s is one of the reasons there's a disconnect between the news media and some of the public.
For me as an editor, what matters most is that the photograph accurately reflect the event its mood, the attendees reactions, and so on. In that sense, the photograph is iconic, a symbol for the event itself in much the same way that the photo of Marines raising the flag at Iowa Jima is symbolic of a hard-fought, costly battle for a Pacific island.
Because of that, "B" probably won't be a great photo. There are pallbearers at virtually every funeral. What makes them a metaphor for this one?
The afternoon of Josh Lacy's memorial, photographer Bryant Anderson and I discussed what he should take a photo of. Bryant felt uncomfortable taking one of teens crying, so I gave him a nebulous answer (ah, the privilege of being the boss): Get something that best represents the mood of the event, that is symbolic of it.
I think he shot that photo: One of Josh's step-father delivering a eulogy next to a portrait of Josh with flowers strewn about it. The step-father wasn't crying, but sadness and the emotional turmoil of the death was evident in his face.
So I'd select something similar to A. Showing emotion can be tastefully done without invading privacy or being sensationalistic (as the photo of the weeping widow and her children essentially is). Other possible photos might be showing the large number of people who attended the funeral, as stills of Martin Luther King Jr. giving his "I Have a Dream" speech often do.
I also would run the deceased's mug, if only so people knew who the story was about. Ideally, we'd have photos of when he was alive, perhaps congenially clasping the hand of a fellow businessman to show the kind of person he was.
So let me give this answer: Sort of A and sort of C.
Some may say that's not fair, I've got to stick to the three black-and-white answers provided. But in the news business, especially with gray ethical dilemmas, you've got to "think outside of the box" to find the right answer.
THE NEXT DILEMMA
Tombstones in a cemetery have been broken in half. A reward fund is established, and many community members want stiff punishment. Police question some teenagers, but there is not enough evidence to determine if any of them vandalized the tombstones. Still, police charge one teen with property damage as he was seen driving near the cemetery the night of the vandalism.
As the local newspaper's editor, do you:
A) Name the accused juvenile in the newspaper article.
B) Not name the accused but report a person has been charged.
C) Not name the accused but report as much information as you can about the accused, such the kind of car he drives.