A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

When You Need To Know, But Don't Need To See


As usual, popular culture holds up a funhouse mirror to distort real life concerns. The current example is the movie, Fifteen Minutes, that portrays killers making video recordings of their murders and then selling the rights to a television news magazine show for $1,000,000.

As bad as the movie turns out to be, the screenwriters got the magazine show host just right when he explains, at the top of his program, why they have chosen to run the graphic footage. He claims that it is their job, as journalists, to show such things.

It's not.

It's rarely the job of journalists or news organizations to show graphic violence, although it may well be their job to tell readers and viewers the story behind the mayhem.

Two recent real life events bridge between the decision of the movie journalists and real life journalists.

Those events are the public death of race car driver Dale Earnhardt and the likely to be private death of convicted terrorist Tim McVeigh. So far, news organizations seem willing to defend their right to access Earnhardt's autopsy photos, yet none are fighting to photograph the McVeigh execution. In short, newsrooms have a right to access both, but a responsibility to show only the execution. There is rarely a responsibility for news organizations to show end of life violence, even when they are perfectly within their rights in accessing the pictures. What newsrooms should show is dependent upon what citizens should see.

The Orlando Sentinel reached an agreement with Earnhardt's widow so that the news organization could do what they said they wanted to do with the photos -- have them examined by an independent medical examiner who can assist the Sentinel in producing a story about safety equipment in race cars. Under the agreement, access is tightly controlled so that there is no chance of the photos being stolen and finding their way to the Web or the pages of a tabloid.

This argument works for this case, but misses the larger issue that is at stake-the public's right to public information.

The good news is that The University of Florida Alligator has joined the case in an attempt to force the state court to honor Florida's open records law, which allows access to autopsy reports and photos. It is the job of news organizations, not courts or court-ordered mediators, to decide what is in the public interest.

News organizations should have access to those photos as they should have access to all materials protected under state and federal open records and open meeting laws. But, it doesn't imply that they should publish them. Many Americans watch high risk sports, in part, because of the possibility of watching a car and driver go up in flames. We assume that some viewers watched the clip of Dale Earnhardt's crash again and again. And, it is to feed the blood lust of Americans like these that some information outlet, somewhere, will pay extraordinary sums of money to get copies of Earnhardt's autopsy photos.

Earnhardt's family has good reason to be worried because eventually, the pictures will be published. They won't lead the 11 p.m. news, and they won't be in your local paper, but it's a safe bet that they'll show up on The pictures won't, and shouldn't be published by news organizations. They are not news. But, it is not up to the state to determine that pictures of this autopsy should be exempt from inclusion under public records law, unless the government is willing to make a more general exception that all privacy claims trump freedom to information. That general exemption, of course, results in the end freedom to information.

However, there are some deaths and dyings that the American public are morally required to see, that the state is morally required to reveal, and that news organizations are, thus, morally required to show. Those are the deaths that happen in our name. State sponsored killing, whether through military action or execution, is indeed the business of the American public. In mid-May, McVeigh is likely to be the first convict in 40 years to be killed by Federal execution. The execution should be carried live, with graphic clips leading the evening news.

America's death penalty is unique enough among developed nations that citizens should be willing to take responsibility for this stand. It is not necessary to argue deterrence or retribution theories of capital punishment to accept that executions happen in the United States because of the will of the people. Federal executions should be televised nationally as part of network news programs. States that execute prisoners should do so under the scrutiny of local news outlets. And, people should watch.

But the public rarely gets to watch. The most infamous image of a public execution was taken by New York Daily News photographer, Tom Howard. In 1928 after a sensational court case and its press coverage, Ruth Snyder, 33, was executed at Sing Sing prison for planning the murder of her husband with her lover. Howard hid a camera strapped to his leg and made pictures during the execution. And in one of the most sensational front pages in the history of journalism, the picture in the Daily News almost covered the entire page with the headline, "DEAD!" However, there was no outrage expressed by readers and the general public. In fact, the paper printed an additional 750,000 copies to satisfy the demand from interested viewers. No. The only result of this image was beefed up security measures at subsequent executions so similar pictures would be prevented.

Governmental arguments that executions should happen out of public view to protect the privacy rights of the convict or family fail when balanced against the need for citizens to know what the government is doing in our name. Graphic footage from Vietnam undoubtedly caused pain to anyone who could identify the maimed and dying soldiers who the networks delivered to our homes. News coverage was blamed by the Pentagon for stimulating and sustaining public outcry against American involvement in Vietnam. The graphic execution of a suspected murderer photographed by Eddie Adams and children injured from a napalm attack shot by Nick Ut are the most obvious examples. In fact, the military is so sure of the connection between news coverage in the field and public opposition to war that, since the conclusion of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, the government has carefully controlled news media access to military operations. The Pentagon provides polished pieces of propaganda for news outlets to use in the absence of news.

Those convicted of capital crimes lose most of their civil rights. If the state were forced to acknowledge that their is important public interest in viewing executions, the convicts' claims to keep state ordered deaths private, would lose by comparison. The person to be executed has no more right to a private death than the dying soldier.

News organizations have a moral responsibility to fight for the public's need to see deaths that happen in our name, whether those deaths happen in governmental service or because of a governmental sentence. The McVeigh execution provides an opportunity for news organizations to wage this battle on citizens' behalf, one death at a time.

It is clear that deaths that are truly in the public interest are not necessarily those that the public is interested in. We would guess that more Americans would peruse photos of Earnhardt's autopsy than McVeigh's lethal injection. But, that's where journalists have the job of differentiating news -- first and foremost what the public needs to know -- from information that the public, and journalists on their behalf, have a right to access. Accessed information may be used in formulating the news, but the fact that information can be accessed does not make it news. News, on the other hand, may not be appealing, or may not even win popular vote for its publication. Rather, the determination of news is, quite rightly, to be found in the professional judgments of those who populate newsrooms.

One argument against broadcasting executions is that, like images of the Vietnam War, it will lead to public outcry against the practice. Another concern is that increased public exposure to violence will make people desensitized to it. These are both empirical claims, either of which might be proven, if state and federal executions were made public.

With NASCAR racing and movies like Fifteen Minutes, the public is continually exposed to violence as entertainment. It is not the job of journalists to attempt to control these images, even when those released under public records law are displayed for their prurient interest by non-news outlets. It is the job of journalists, however, to fight for the important freedom to show deaths that occur in the name of all.


An update on a column we wrote for the January issue of News Photographer:
On March 9, a Montana district court judge quashed a subpoena that ordered University of Montana journalism student, Linda Tracy, to turn over video outtakes to the Missoula city attorney. The court ruled that Tracy is a journalist and protected by the state's shield law, based on her record of shooting video used by news outlets and used in her own production company. Her status as a student was not addressed in the ruling. The city attorney declined to appeal the ruling.

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