Readers Speak: The Power of a Picture / Graphic images can shock and inform

By Ryan Pitts, Associated Press Managing Editors/Spokane Spokesman-Review

Newspaper readers and journalists agree that a complete news report can’t ignore the disturbing sides of life, but readers are generally more conservative about when — and where — graphic photographs should be published.

Responding to an online survey, both groups said that challenging images sometimes describe reality in a way that words can’t. Although few thought the public should be shielded from ugly truths, they all ran into similar concerns when deciding whether specific pictures should run.

Readers and journalists alike struggled to balance compassion and family privacy with a broader need for information. They saw value in unflinching descriptions of wartime brutality, but no one wanted to become a tool for terrorist propaganda.

Some of the shared values weren’t abstract at all: How do I explain this picture to my kids?

Opinions were collected by the Associated Press Managing Editors National Credibility Roundtables Project, which involved more than 2,400 readers and 400 journalists who viewed five photographs, then decided where (or if) the images should be published. Subjects included tsunami victims, American soldiers and violence in the war in Iraq. In most cases, a majority believed the picture ought to be published somewhere in the newspaper, if not on the front page.

“Report the news as it happens and don’t try to soft-pedal everything,” said Wally Rayl of Cheyenne, Wyo. “How can people react appropriately to any given situation if they don’t have all the facts; or if the facts are altered because someone thinks life is too graphic for us to deal with?… Not being able to face reality is a major problem in our society today.”

Most respondents described gut feelings, though, telling them when that reality was too gruesome for publication. Many journalists invoked the so-called “cereal test,” newsroom slang for a simple question: Would I want my family to see this photo at the breakfast table tomorrow morning?

This concept was especially important in determining whether pictures belonged on the front page, where readers may not have a choice about seeing them.

“There seems to be a complicated mix of information that makes a photo uncomfortable or even offensive,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at journalism’s Poynter Institute. “Dead bodies are one thing, bloated, decaying bodies are another.”

As readers and journalists judged an image’s potential to cross that philosophical line, they showed a similar set of morals and fears. So why were media workers consistently more likely to publish the photos?

“It’s probably safe to say that journalists as a group are more likely to ground their moral decisions in duty,” McBride said in an email interview. “They believe it is their duty to inform. In the wider public arena, a greater portion of people are going to ground their moral decisions in care. That means they would be concerned about harming the people in the photos, as well as the audience who might view the photo.”

But controversy can’t become an excuse to avoid graphic images, she said. Sometimes fundamental journalism doesn’t happen without them.

“It’s impossible to tell a story of death and destruction on the scale of the tsunami without showing some pictures that include death and destruction,” McBride said, which leaves newsrooms obliged to consider decisions carefully. And although journalists in the survey were concerned about the same things as their readers, a recent workshop left McBride with the sense that too few media outlets have translated these values into consistent procedure.

“The key is in having a healthy process for deciding which photos, how many, where they run, and what other contextual information is provided to the reader.” McBride suggests leading off with a series of questions like “What’s our journalistic purpose?”; “Who’s in our audience?”; even “What harm could we cause by running this?” And bringing readers into the conversation, she said, can help find the right answers.

Photo 1: Tsunami victims

The APME’s online survey showed five photos that had been discussed in newsrooms and households across the country. In each case, some media outlets chose to run the image, and some chose against. Confronted first with the image of a grieving mother among children killed by the Asian tsunami, survey respondents wrote of awkward feelings; they felt as if they were intruding on a sacred moment.

“If your child were killed in some horrific manner, would you rush a reporter to get a picture of your wife’s reaction?” asked Red Thomas, a reader from Mesa, Ariz. “If not, why does this woman deserve less dignity?”

Most viewers were also extremely hesitant to show the bodies of dead children. A significant minority of journalists and readers — about a quarter of both groups — refused to run the picture. For them, it was just too personal. Many journalists also cited newsroom policies that specifically prohibit publishing photos of dead bodies.

Still, 67 percent of journalists and 56 percent of readers said the photo belonged in the paper. Many said they’d run the image precisely because it forced Americans to identify with faraway tragedy. Statistical descriptions of widespread devastation are impressive and incomprehensible at the same time, but a mother’s anguish hits home.

“I believe the only way to make something as vast as this tragedy understandable is to reduce it to single, human images,” said David Offer, a journalist from Augusta, Maine.

Many were also moved by the photo’s potential to call Americans to action.

“While heart-wrenching, the image is an important one to communicate the catastrophe, and to personalize it,” said Ed Roussell, a reader from Medford, Ore. “I wouldn’t put it on the front page … but the photo should be used, especially to move individuals to reflect (and hug their own children tighter) and to help — philanthropically, and otherwise.”

Photo 2: Street execution of Iraqi election workers

A set of three photographs captured one of the more alarming scenes to play out in Baghdad in recent weeks: the executions of two Iraqi election workers, by terrorists in broad daylight in the middle of a street. Three-quarters of the journalists and nearly two-thirds of the readers would have published one of the photos in print.

Their reasons weren’t complicated. Ask Danny Schoenbaechler, a reader from Bowling Green, Ky.: “This picture shows just how rough Iraq is and just how awful the terrorists are.”

Many others noted the way this image displayed the brazen ways of the insurgency. Others were impressed by the heroism of everyday Iraqis. “I think it’s a powerful aid to stories explaining the terrible risks taken by Iraqis trying to rebuild their country,” said Patrick Springer, a journalist from Fargo, N.D.

Springer was among many who were reminded of Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photo from the Vietnam War, an iconic image of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a Viet Cong suspect in 1968. Kristyna Wentz-Graff, a journalist from Appleton, Wis., saw the same parallel.

“It’s images like this … that make change,” she said. “This is crazy, people being executed in the streets. These type of images prompt people to care and have opinions about events that are worlds away.”

Some respondents said technical issues might keep them from playing the photo on the front page; it’s difficult to tell what’s going on without the aid of a caption. Others said they’d run the photo, but wanted to be sure there would be enough context in print to tell its story. Then others said there’s no excuse — ever — for showing a person in the process of being killed. But the most significant worry was over the photo’s possible side effects: By publicizing the Baghdad executions, are we giving the terrorists exactly what they want?

“These murderers obviously adore the limelight — conducting their crimes in broad daylight in front of numerous observers,” said Melissa Chinn, a reader from Pine City, Minn. “Don’t allow them further satisfaction.”

Journalists described the same fears, but most decided that providing an accurate description of terrorist tactics and the danger in Baghdad outweighed them.

“People need to know what kind of evil and vile events are taking place in the world in order to help stop it,” said Tony Overman, a journalist from Olympia, Wash. “This photo conveys the evil, without being graphically offensive.”

Photo 3: Wounded American soldier

This image, which shows medics attending to a soldier who later died from his injuries, brought competing concerns into stark relief. Is honoring the heroic efforts of American troops important enough to sacrifice the privacy of a wounded family?

Respondents on both sides found an answer in the same place: the wedding ring on the dying soldier’s hand.

“The compassion of the soldier giving CPR and the teamsmanship of those trying to save his life honors our military,” said Rose Barnett, a reader from Jacksonville, Fla. “I see the fellow has a wedding band. I’m sure it was hard on his wife and family, but giving tribute I think gives honor. … This doesn’t tell me we shouldn’t be there; this tells me that this was a brave and kind man to lay his life down for the freedom of others. God rest his soul.”

Amid regular reports of death and destruction, the opportunity to show members of our military working to save a life became an important justification for using this image. Seventy-four percent of journalists and 59 percent of readers would have printed it. “The photo speaks not just about a dying soldier but also to the comrades in arms that are trying to save his life,” Jim Slosiarek, a journalist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I think not publishing this photo does a great disservice to their efforts.”

But plenty of respondents said family needs overwhelm any good the photo might do. Thirty percent of readers and 21 percent of journalists would have avoided it altogether.

“I feel really strongly about this picture as I have a military son,” said Kathryn Martin, a reader from North Chili, N.Y. “I DO NOT want to see his dead body in the newspaper and have it run for years and years to catch me unawares any time there is a ‘retrospective’ about the war.”

Andrew Kuppers, a journalist in Lakeland, Fla., said his paper received plenty of complaints after running this image on the front page. “Our decision was based on the sheer power of the moment, an act of heroism on the part of the medic,” he said. “Most of our own guidelines would point us away from such a photo, but we went with it anyway, probably because everyone involved in the decision agreed it was one of the most powerful photos of the year from Iraq. … It’s worth noting that the main thing everyone noticed — whether they agreed or disagreed with running the photo — was the soldier’s wedding band.”

Photo 4: Flag-draped coffins

Since 1991, Pentagon policy has kept the media from photographing the caskets of American soldiers killed overseas. The ban became big news in 2004, when cargo worker Tami Silicio took a picture of flag-draped coffins in Kuwait, and it appeared in The Seattle Times.

Silicio was fired over the photo, but by then it had already run worldwide. A Freedom of Information Act request by Russ Kick of The Memory Hole website later gave the public access to photos of military caskets at Dover Air Force Base.

Journalists and readers overwhelmingly agreed that images like these need to be seen. If we are willing to go to war, we can’t flinch at showing its cost. Eighty-three percent of readers and 98 percent of journalists would have printed photos of the flag-draped coffins.

“This impersonal image of the horrors of war is a proper reminder of the sacrifice involved in going after our enemies,” said Robert Pabst, a reader from Winter Haven, Fla. “It helps us appreciate and support benefits for the wonderful people who are giving their all to protect us from those who would kill us all if they could.”

Maureen Wallenfang, a journalist from Appleton, Wis., said the solemnity observed in these images is one of their most moving aspects. “These coffins contain our sons, daughters, spouses, parents, friends and neighbors. The image is powerful for two reasons: it not only emphasizes the human price of war, but it also shows, I believe, the remains being treated with respect and dignity on the final journey home.”

The Pentagon says its policy protects grieving families, but survey respondents found that responsibility fulfilled by the difficulty of identifying the war dead.

“As a veteran myself, I don’t think that the United States citizenry should be shielded from the actual horror affecting its military on a daily basis,” said Dan Webster, a reporter from Spokane, Wash.

“This shows our respect to our fallen men and women,” said Susan Swartz, a reader from Tempe, Ariz. “To hide their deaths makes it look as if we are ashamed of what we have done by going to war.”

Photo 5: Beheading of American captive

Terrorists captured American citizen Nick Berg in May 2004, then released a videotape of his beheading. Details of the killing have been largely left to the public’s imagination, because few media outlets ran more than a picture of Berg seated below his hooded killers.

Even that may have been too chilling; forty-seven percent of journalists and 55 percent of readers said they wanted nothing to do with any of the images at all. Of those who would have published a photo, nearly all were extremely careful to say they’d never consider anything beyond Berg at the feet of his captors. If there’s a line where graphic pictures go from important to inappropriate, beheadings are clearly on the other side of it.

“It’s horrible and we need to know that it’s happening, but watching someone plead for his life and then die a violent death isn’t accomplishing anything,” said Kylie Polzin, a reader from Goose Creek, S.C.

“Having watched the tape, the other images were way to disturbing for printing,” said Alan Hawes, a journalist from Charleston, S.C. “I’ve witnessed some very disturbing things in this business, but even viewing a videotape of this shook me about as hard as some nasty things I’ve see with my own eyes.”

As they did with the street executions in Baghdad, respondents wondered whose purposes are being served by running photos of Nick Berg’s beheading.

Michael Segers, a reader from Lakeland, Fla., asked: “Does the photo work more FOR the captors (they want this image out) or AGAINST them (showing how awful they are)?”

Journalists repeatedly referred to the video as terrorist propaganda. “I also have some concerns about helping the terrorist agenda or endangering civilians by showing this type of image,” said Sanne Specht, a journalist from Medford, Ore. “I think it’s a journalist’s job to faithfully disclose the reality of any situation. But this one troubles me greatly.”

McBride, of the Poynter Institute, said the source of the video should make this decision an easy one.

“In the same way that running a slick PR photo provided by a corporation undermines your journalistic independence, so does running photos provided by terrorists,” she said. “You further their agenda. The only way you could justify such a decision is to say that public good somehow outweighs the compromise. I have yet to see a case where it does.”

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