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Community standards dictate when to publish photographs


Journalists are often faced with difficult decisions; their profession requires them to walk a thin, sometimes non-existent line between right and wrong. Journalists ultimately make their own decisions as to what is right and what is not, and what should be reported and what should not.

There are few rules for what newspapers can and cannot publish; reporters make the preliminary decision, editors and publishers decide or try to predict what the public will accept, what will sell, and what should be published.

Smaller publications approach decisions with their own personal ethics, morals, and common sense. Editors, publishers, and journalists try to keep their readers and business in mind.

The National Press Photographers Association, NPPA, has a code of ethics for photojournalists to follow. These standards are in place for a reason, such as the fourth standard: to treat everyone with respect and dignity; but they are also vague and encourage interpretation.

Brian Basham, current photo editor for the Detroit Lakes Newspapers in Detroit Lakes Minn, has experience balancing ethics and journalism in a small community.
On Tuesday, November 13 2001, Virginia Eidenschink, a Detroit Lakes resident, was killed in a freak-tree chopping accident. Eidenschink's husband was cutting down a tree when a branch broke loose from it and knocked a second tree onto to her.

The next day, Wednesday, November 14 the Becker County Record ran an image from the scene of the accident that photographer and reporter Brian Basham had captured the day before. The photo ran on the front page of the paper, large and in color next to a short article. The image depicted Eidenschink wrapped in a body bag, surrounded by on-lookers and emergency technicians.

As a photographer, Basham's personal philosophy is that without capturing an image you can't argue for or against it. Basham submitted the picture to the Detroit Lakes Newspaper's photo editor at the time, Tim Hennigar, who ultimately decided it should run.

Brian agrees that the picture should not have been printed, and he maintains that he did not take the picture with the intention of it being published; but he admits that he submitted it with the possibility of it being published in his mind--and that, at the time, he did not see printing it as wrong.

"I gave him two versions of the picture; one with the body and one without." Basham said, "I shouldn't have actually tried to use the picture. It made me question myself, am I desensitized?"

Both Basham and Hennigar received a lot of attention after the photo ran on the front page of the paper.

On Sunday, November 18 the Detroit Lakes Tribune ran an apology along with four angry letters to the editor. The shortest letter was from the family of the deceased who addressed the photo calling it "a malicious act."

The community of Detroit Lakes was outraged; they were shocked by the insensitivity of their local newspaper and sickened by what they saw as an exploitation of a beloved community member.

"Did it enhance the story of the tragedy of a lovely woman?" community member Stacey Heitkamp asked. "It added nothing more than shock value to your article."
Reader Patti Eckre came to a similar conclusion.

"The picture did not add anything to the public's understanding of the occurrence. It appears to have been done for sensationalist reasons--to grab the public's attention," said Eckre.

Paul Martin Lester, in his article "Photojournalism Ethics Timeless Issues", notes that readers are often simultaneously intrigued by images of violence and gore and offended by them. It is up to editors to be sure that graphic images are really necessary to tell the story.

This photo ran just a month after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Basham believes that being flooded with graphic and sensational images of death and destruction may have inadvertently led him to submitting the picture for publication without realizing its insensitivity.

"Images of people jumping out of buildings? That's okay for the New York Times," Basham said. "You have to remember who your readers are."

Because the photo did not add to the story of Eidenschink's death, and because of how it was arranged on the front page, Detroit Lakes Newspaper's readers became suspicious of the newspaper's motives.

"This made me look at my own ethics," Basham said, "for some reason that little alarm you think should go off in your head didn't go off for me."

Current news editor for Detroit Lakes Newspapers, Pippi Mayfield, did not work for the publication when Eidenschink's photo was printed, and she said nothing of this caliber has happened since.

"Anytime you do anything," said Mayfield, "you have to have a reason."
Mayfield believes that better placement may have made this photograph less upsetting.

Rather than rubbing the image in the face of the community on the front page it may have had less emotional impact on the inside, but burying it would not have substantially altered the outcome or justified its publication.

"There were sensitivity issues with the shock of a death like this." Mayfield said, "The paper should have used better judgment and consideration for the family."

Paul Martin Lester, in his book Photojournalism: an Ethical Approach, notes that the placement of an image, what time of day it is featured, and whether or not it is black and white or in color affects how readers perceive it. Three of the four angry letters from the community mentioned that the picture of Virginia Eidenschink was in color and indicated this added to their outrage, as well as it's placement on the front page.

People are often upset by what the community newspaper publishes Mayfield said, but the paper cannot retract everything or change or slant the news just to be sensitive. If a story is newsworthy it will be covered whether or not it upsets a select few.

Photography and reporting have similar ethics and approach what is safe to print similarly, but photographs seem to have a power to spark an emotional response within the spectator that an article may not.

Images can invoke a strong passion in the reader, reporter, publisher, or editor, who in turn creates strong personal justification either for or against printing the photo. Lester recognizes six specific philosophies of justification in photojournalism.

The photo of Virginia Eidenschink not only upset the entire community but it also had lasting consequences.

Detroit Lakes Newspapers' publisher, Dennis Waskowski, asked the paper to be more cautious after the incident and to back down the coverage of accident scenes. Basham admitted the photo to be insensitive and in bad judgment; Tim Hennigar stood by his decision.

In addition to receiving a number of phone calls from upset members of the community, the local Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) barred Basham from accident scenes after the photo of Virginia Eidenschink in a body bag was printed.

An EMT who recognized Basham as the reporter who covered Eidenschink's death spread the word among his coworkers that Basham should be restricted and should not be trusted. Basham argued for his right to be at the accident scenes, but found himself banned.

Both the publisher and editor of Detroit Lakes Newspapers had to become involved before he was allowed to photograph local accident scenes again. Basham was eventually issued an apology from the EMT who recognized him from the Eidenschink accident.