The publication of controversial photos: Deciding what to print
by Veronica Wilson
A large-scale accident, tragedy, or murder takes place and the next day’s newspaper has it splashed across the front page. As the aftermath of the original incident dies down it leaves the community to question the ethics behind the journalism.
Take, for instance, the photograph of 16-year-old Jeff Davis who was shot on July 29, 1993. Davis was shot to death after leaving a convenience store. A photograph of Davis lying lifeless with blood streaming from his head was just one of the photographs presented to editors at the Daily Press in Newport News-Hampton, Va., while they were in the midst of covering the story according to Bob Steele, a scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
The photograph was printed on page one of the Daily Press on July 31, 1993.
Editor of the Daily Press, Will Corbin, wrote a story in the paper explaining the decision to run the photo.
“We finally agreed: This photograph would make our readers angry in a way that was worth upsetting them. It would leave a lasting and indelible impression as a troubling icon of our times,�? Corbin wrote. Adding that permission was first asked from Davis’ family and if the family had objected the photo would not have run.
Corbin wrote that the photograph still received negative feedback from the community, which was expected, while others thanked him for publishing the photo.
The question of tastefulness in the newsroom happens more than just a few times a year when a horrific event happens. In fact it happens in newsrooms across the country daily.
Jay Corn, editor of the Kanabec County Times, said he had two instances the past month where he had to question whether he should publish photos of two fatal car accidents.
“One I did publish the accident shots and one I didn’t. For the one I didn’t the main reason was because it was a 16 year old. So I held off on the photos.�?
In the case of the 16 year old, a lot of issues other than age were considered when deciding on how to cover the accident.
The accident photo was very graphic. It had a lot of blood. It was Easter weekend, and the day the paper went to stands was also the day of his funeral, Corn said.
“I thought it was all a little much,�? Corn said. “So I just put his yearbook photo in there and I think that served its purpose.�?
Other news sources took the same route as Corn. When looking at coverage of the same accident by the Star Tribune, Mille Lacs County Times, and the St. Cloud Times, it was found that none of them used an accident scene photo.
The other accident that Corn chose to publish an accident scene photo of also came after a lot of thought.
The victim was older, the photo was from far away and the photos were not too graphic, Corn said. He also thought the photos would help the reader understand how the accident took place.
The accident happened under horrible road conditions, Corn said. The roads were icy and the weather conditions were extremely bad. The photos would show the weather conditions along with the accident.
“I thought it would convey to readers a little more of how the accident actually happened,�? Corn said.
Even after careful thought and consideration of the victim and their family, Corn said the sheriff approached him letting him know he would have liked if Corn had left the photo out.
“He wasn’t aggravated but he did let me know that he would have appreciated it if I would have left it out,�? Corn said.
If Corn knew before hand the sheriff’s thoughts, he more than likely would not have printed the photo.
“If the sheriff would had insisted that I did not put that photo in the paper I would have probably listened because he’s a great source and I will need him in the future. You have to ask yourself if the accident photo is worth damaging that relationship,�? Corn said.
Unlike the editors at the Daily Press in the case of Davis’ story, Corn says he
does not look for permission to run any legal photo, nor does he go to the family for
“Maybe this is bad journalism. But I never go to a family for a source,�? Corn said. “The last thing they need is Corn on their door step asking for permission.�?
He went on to say he would never ask permission from family or anyone else to run any legal photo.
“I wouldn’t ask anyone for permission to run anything. As much as it might hurt them for me to use it, it is still legal. So I wont ask�? Corn Said.
Corn said it’s a judgment call that the journalist has to make case by case. It is always decided by what is best in taste on whether to publish photos. It really comes down to what the right thing to do is.
“I’ve gotten some pretty gruesome photos. You’re obviously not going to publish a whole lot of blood and guts, there is a certain amount of professionalism,�? Corn said.
Blood and guts are not the only accident photos you have to worry about as an editor, Corn said. You also have to look at whether you should even print photos of the scene of the crime, including pictures of emergency vehicles or the destroyed car after the
Becky Glander, editor of the Pine City Pioneer, said although she has never been put in a situation like the one Corn faced, she doesn’t think she would use any photos of a victim.
“I wouldn’t want to see my family member on the cover of the paper,�? Glander said. “I would most likely not print anything like that, maybe the accident, but not actually the person.�?
Glander said this is especially important in a community that is so small that practically everyone knows everyone else.
“It wouldn’t be tasteful at all,�? Glander said.
But should the size of the community and nature of the accident come into play?
It definitely does matter if you ask Corn.
“I hate getting scooped by other papers or news stations. If it happens here in my coverage area I should have the best coverage,�? Corn said.
Corn said he would be more likely to publish more graphic photographs in a story that he knew would be covered by other papers and news sources because they too will have pictures. Having the story take place in his coverage area means he needs to have the best photos.
“It definitely makes a difference,�? he said.
Large-scale stories and local stories both face ethical questioning when it comes to the publication of photos. It seems as though there is no right or wrong answer when deciding how to cover a story.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics simply states: “Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.�?
There may be no clear-cut rule on what to print and what not to print but journalists always have their own ethical values to fall back on.