The quandary of graphic photography (Warning: disturbing images)

Commentary

You see the news and for 30 seconds you’re devastated. Two journalists are murdered during a live shot on a local affiliate’s morning show. Maybe you catch their names (Alison Parker and Adam Ward of WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia) and maybe you are still gripped long enough to learn a little bit of their back story (both in relationships with co-workers, one of whom watched the shooting live in the studio). And you are overwhelmed. Maybe you cry. Maybe you say something flippant to cope.

And then as quickly as the devastation hits, it’s over. You’re outraged at another gun death. You’re outraged that people will call for gun restrictions. You’re outraged that people are sharing the video on social media. You’re outraged that social media is censoring the video. You’re outraged that another voice on social media is contrary to your own. You are outraged at the president. You are outraged at those who are outraged at the president. You are outraged at the media. Despite having differing views than the other social media voice who is outraged at the media, you are also outraged at the media.

And then, you get up, and you start your day, and you head to your job as a member of the media.

This — this makes you different.

But first

I am not defending today’s New York Daily News front page. I believe it to be crass, and I would not have done it. Construing what follows as a defense of that approach, or similar, is patently false and taken out of context.

Moreover, the audience’s prevailing desire not to see graphic photos or videos must not only be acknowledged, it must be an integral part of any news judgment decision. Please do not read another word without this as the background.

Unless otherwise noted, all pages below come from the Newseum.

The decision

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It’s done. It’s printed. You’ve run photos, taken from a gunman in the process of a murder, on your front page. You can’t undo this.

Social media reacts

Many with outrage …

Some raise unquestionably important journalistic ethics questions, spoken from experience.

Poynter avoided the graphic images.

And Poynter said we should do the same.

Some journalists offered solutions.

Some stuck with outrage.

Some wondered why we should censor documentary photography.

And that’s where we’re at, 36 hours later.

None of the above is an absolute. They’re all opinions. Should Poynter pass on discussions such as this, or is it a chance for media study? Is an all-black front an SND gold medal winner, a bold editorial stance or an old design gimmick, or all three? Can someone as in-the-thick-of-things as a photographer in the field relate to what a reader will take in on a front? Maybe these are all separate discussions, but in this context, they’re here to illustrate that, within the industry, divides exist.

The real point is, in a short time, we have all gone from the exact same feeling — crushing, heartbreaking devastation — to these splintered, compartmentalized opinions we can’t reconcile.

And that’s the dilemma we face: The social media age might be about being outraged at the outrage, but this is where journalists have to differ. The general public can shield its eyes and hole up when needed. Journalists have to parse, pore and stare down some very hard decisions. It’s what separates our line of work from PR.

Pushing ourselves to the edge of what we can stand, and then at that point exercising news judgment, is what will always defines us as journalists.

The choices we make …

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1. News judgment is not social media’s decision.

If you didn’t run an image because you feared a Twitter backlash, or if you did run an image because you knew it would provoke a viral response, you’ve let everybody down. At the end of the day, how many people up in arms on social media actually have to make the decision you’re faced with? We don’t exist in a classroom or a utopia. When a September 11, or a Benghazi, or a famine, or a brutal terrorist regime happens, it doesn’t get any more REAL, and your dedication has to be first, to the truth, second, to your audience, and third, to the success of your employer.

That order may change. You don’t want to lose your job because a decision you made went viral and caused an outcry, clearly. But we are here for all sides of all stories, including the horrific.

2. However you feel about THOSE images, there’s another side.

Speaking of course about the killer’s video and its still frames. The ones that caused the outrage in papers today. Poynter advised journalists not to run them, and people were appalled at those who did. (Here is a pretty compelling argument against.)

All of that is valid: The images are gratuitous. The images were part of the killer’s master suicide plan. Friends and family of victims shouldn’t have to relive their moment of death.

And all of this is valid: The truth is, this story is on our front pages because it happened on live TV. That moment — that horror — is why we’re talking about it at all. It’s what separates it from so many other awful homicides yesterday. And those images capture that moment. Discounting them is to discount documentation of the truth — truth about what happened on U.S. soil, with a gun, in August 2015. It’s a horrible tragedy and the only way to understand it is to look at it for what it is.

Both of those have to balance themselves out, and they have to do it very specifically in YOUR newsroom.

3. Reader reaction and interest are not the same

It’s weird, here almost at the end of this piece where I’m not going to try to tell you what to do, to bring this full circle, but here we are. After you split off from that initial 30 seconds of sadness into your own journalistic world, I hope you did right by your readers.

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I think they did. This happened at home to their audience, and they were sensitive to it. Those images — the smiles — were in their audiences’ best interest.

We’ve had similar discussions about photo choices before, and what different publications’ covers connote. Incredible, moving photography may be a staple of, say, National Geographic, but may be out of place somewhere else. I hope we all understand that we make decisions specifically for our readers and not a nonexistent, utopian audience somewhere.

Everybody else? I hope you did too, but for the right reasons. I hope you had reader interest and not reader reaction in mind the whole time.

I hope the New York Daily News ran theirs because they thought the outrage from seeing real-time frame grabs from a murder would lead to something — anything — that may bring about meaningful discussions of gun violence, and didn’t just see a tact to outsell the other New York tabloids. I hope the European papers ran theirs because they thought their audience — long ago desensitized to gruesome photography — would understand the depths of violence in the U.S. and not because they were trying to scare someone into grabbing a paper.

Senior visual journalism faculty Kenny Irby of Poynter also offered this: “My advice to media leaders is to simply be transparent about their decisions on the front end and to to be willing to disclose their reasoning and justification for their choices in the course of their coverage.”

“And consider the duration of the graphic presentation. As the story develops, you want to update the visual content just as your update written and oral reporting.”

Here’s where I stand: Make the choice that is most likely to resonate, or lead down a path to some kind of positive change. Decide, on your home page or front page, to make the kind of impact that will seize the horror of a tragedy and outpouring that follows so that maybe your audience lives in a better place tomorrow.

Isn’t that why we’re still here?