You be the Editor: Would you run this photo?

March 29, 2007 12:00 am

A rusted, unkempt boat partially sinks at the harbor. As it does, oil spills into the water, causing the boat owner to be cited for polluting. Your photographer takes a picture of the boat to run with the news story. The photo, however, gives you pause: Behind the sunken boat is another craft that also is rusted, though still fully afloat. If you were the editor, would you run the picture?

Several readers responded, most agreeing they would.

Those responses were particularly interesting as The Daily Triplicate newsroom faced a similar problem last week: How to photograph a business where some the owners were arrested on charges of grand theft, forgery and criminal conspiracy.

But first, the posed dilemma about the boat photograph. It offered three possible solutions for readers to choose:

A) Run the picture because readers should know what the boat that has sunk looks like

B) Run the picture but explain in the caption that the boat behind it is owned by someone else and is still afloat

C) Not run the picture

Readers respond

Here's what readers said they would do:

•Marjory Stitt, of Crescent City, went with A: "The story is about pollution. The boat picture shows pollution. The owner was cited for pollution. I say run the story and picture with a caption like, ‘The HMS Angst, seen in the foreground, was cited for pollution on Tuesday in the harbor.' While both boats are rusty and possibly ugly, the owner didn't get cited for ugliness and rust, so there is no reason to explain anything about the boat in the background."

•Stacy Pottorff, of Fort Dick, went with A, too: "The article you are describing has to do with the partially sunken vessel and the oil spill,not the condition of boats that are moored at the harbor. If the boat in question is the main focus of the photo then what is in the background does not matter. Both are in public view so there is no reason to explain why the second one is there. I look at it this way: If you are printing a photo of a wrecked car at a mechanics shop, do you really need to explain the presence of other cars in the background?"

•Pete Fitzhugh, of Crescent City, also went with A – and offered another story idea: "I think that I would run the picture of the sunken vessel as well as the vessel that was rusted in the photo's background. I would do so in an attempt to address the actual root of the problem. Did the vessel sink due to neglect? Is the vessel in the background in the same shape because of the same problem?

Having lived in Crescent City for more than half my life, I can tell you from first-hand experience that most who work in the commercial fishing industry are not exactly wealthy.There are numerous external causes that could have contributed to the current status of both vessels. The real story may be that both vessels our under some sort of foreclosure and the owners may not have access to them. This very scenario has been the case in several former skippers who have had their vessels repossessed.

"So I would run the story with both vessels, but I would also attempt to answer the question as to why the vessels were in that shape in the first place. Doing this would not only address the environmental impact that is of immediate concern, but it also might cause those who are responsible for actions such as foreclosure in first place to work with fisherman. Reporting on this issue may ensure that normal preventative maintenance is still performed on all vessels, no matter their status."

•L.D. Scarbrough, of Smith River, offered a different solution – and another story idea:

"If the story is a rusted, unkempt boat partially sinks at the harbor and oil spills into the water causing the boat owner to be cited for polluting print the picture showing what the boat that partially sunk looks like without any mention of any other boats in the picture.

"Just because a boat, to the untrained eye, looks rusted and unkempt does not make it part of this particular story.

"A broader story could be done that brings up the problems faced by the boat owners and the harbormaster when the owners are no longer able to keep up their boats for whatever reason. Your story and picture of the boats would then be relevant to the whole picture."

Avoiding confusion

Thanks to Marjory, Stacy, Peter and L.D. for responding. They've offered some good points that are well-reasoned. And I appreciate the suggestions that there are deeper (no pun intended) and broader issues that the story should address.

My own solution is a little different than those provided, though: I'd choose C and ask the photographer if he had any other photos that just showed the boat in question. If he didn't, I'd send him back to the dock.

Why? We wouldn't ant there to be any confusion over which boat was the one that landed the owner a citation. While recognizing the offending boat in question may seem obvious, because of the other boat's poor shape, some readers might wonder if its owner also hasn't been cited. In that sense, we've implied the owner of the boat in the background is guilty of some crime.

If the boat in the background had been pristine and obviously in good shape, then let's run the photograph. Such is the case with photographs showing someone charged with a crime being escorted by sheriff's deputies to or from a courthouse; there's no doubt that the guy in the orange jumpsuit is the one charged.

Of course, there always are exceptions to the rule. One that our sports editor raised was the photo of a guy charged with a foul during a basketball game. Should we toss the photo if it includes the guy who was fouled? No. The "charge" isn't significant enough to merit concern.

Sometimes there can be a rusty boat in the background. If that boat were slightly out of focus so the eye went straight to the offending craft, then there's really no way to be confused.

Last week, we ran into the problem when the owners of Fraser, Yamor and Youn Insurance Agency were charged with felonies. We took a photograph of the building where the agency is located, with the roadside sign giving the business' name in front of it.

The problem was another business with offices in the building also was on the sign – and was listed above the insurance agency. As the photograph would run with the first story written about the arrests, we opted to not use it and do a reshoot. We didn't want to risk there being any confusion about which business's owners were being charged.

In last Friday's paper, you saw the photograph we came up during the reshooting: It's of the agency's front door. You'll also notice that no one working on the other side of the glass is visible. Charges have not been filed against any of those employees, and there's no reason to imply, if only through a photograph, that any have been.

Reach Rob Bignell, The Daily Triplicate's editor, at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it