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

Newsworthy Death Need not be a Cliche

Birth, graduations, weddings, divorce and death: these are all ritualized events that mark passages in people's lives. They are vital to individuals and all but insignificant to the rest of us, most of the time.

But when these personal markers are worthy of public notice and, thus, worth a spot in the news, they should be covered as more than visual cliches. Visual cliches are exceedingly easy to conjure. That babe in arms that graced the front of your hometown newspaper on or near January 1 could have been switched with any of a hundred newborn pictures without anyone but their parents blinking an eye.

The hats-in-the-air graduation moment, the just-married couple making their way, laughing, through a jubilant crowd, the same couple a few years later, leaving the courthouse with his and her attorneys, and the grieving pallbearers carrying a family member's coffin, are not examples of news photography. They are visual cliches.

It is not surprising that rituals of death yield one more set of visual cliches and a lot of unhappy photographers and videographers when they are sent to the scene. Discussion on the NPPA listserv reveals the not surprising fact that most journalists hate to cover public deaths and funerals. While we can't make these plum assignments, in this column we hope to provide a different perspective.

Journalists are generally no better at dealing with death than are the rest of the public. Until recently, death was an acceptable topic for discussion only at county morgues and funeral homes among those who care for the deceased. And, some of these folks were true merchants of death, making a killing from the exploitation of survivors, their guilt and their wallets. In one episode of the critically acclaimed HBO series, "Six Feet Under," it was revealed that the mark-up for a particular coffin was $6000.

Perceptions of death have been changing over the past decade, as is indicated by the fact that there is now a cable series that focuses on the lives of those who care for the dead. Death in entertainment television reflects the greater acceptance of death in real life. Individuals have increasingly realized that they have a responsibility to make arrangements regarding the disposal of their remains and regarding how they should be cared for if they enter a terminal and incapacitated state. The hospice movement has clarified that people do have a right to be supported, rather than assaulted by unneeded medical treatment, as they enter their final days and hours.

Classes like the "Ethics and Action in End of Life Care," a short course offered this summer at The University of Montana, give language and focus to professionals and lay people who want to think about improving the quality of experience at life's end. (Click here for a complete listing of summer short courses in ethics at The University of Montana).

The November 1 "Day of the Dead" celebration, imported from Mexico, is popping up on community calendars throughout the U.S., as people find that parades, picnics and storytelling provide opportunities for grief and support. Spontaneous public shrines and memorials have sprung up in response to events as huge as 9/11 and as small as individual traffic fatalities.

Death has come out of the closet. With the increasing public acknowledgement of this life's event has come new opportunities to visually report and record death and its rituals. It doesn't follow that individual deaths are now fair game, but that it is easier now than ever before to develop guidelines for which deaths to cover and how.

1. Newsworthiness of the individual's death

The deaths of celebrities and other public individuals need to be reported as do deaths that occur in the public arena. How widely they need to be reported depends on the breadth of public knowledge or the extent of public effect. As a general rule, the closer the person or public occurrence to the audience, the greater the justification for extensive coverage or pictures.

The statement of such a general rule immediately calls to mind exceptions to that rule - the infamous Bakersfield drowning scene by John Harte, the Budd Dwyer on camera suicide in 1987, and too numerous to count photos of dead children from foreign places that all ran in newspapers and on news programs coast to coast. Sometimes, as with the Harte photo, the decision to run was aesthetic - it was a "helluva good picture." Sometimes, as with Dwyer, the picture was run because it was an extraordinary event. How often does a public official call a press conference and literally shoot himself in the mouth? Other times, as with the dead children overseas, the pictures are run to open a window on the world to American audiences that is usually closed.

Exceptions to this, and to any other general rule, can be made, but they need to be made on ethical grounds. An ethical, rather than aesthetic, justification means that more harm will come to audiences in NOT seeing the image than the harm that will come to subjects or others in showing it.

2. Avoid the visual cliche

The reason that the particular death is newsworthy provides the essential idea for how to avoid a visual cliche. On the NPPA listserv, Robert Cooper discussed the death of a 16-year-old girl resulting from a car crash. The Panama City, Florida News Herald photos included "a weeping girl being carried away from the scene by her boyfriend," "the girl's body being removed from the lake," and a picture showing the girl's friends tossing roses on the water of the bayou where she died. Family and friends, not surprisingly, responded with anger to the photo coverage. Cooper argued that "It was a tragic story, but it was news and there was no way to deny its news value." He also pointed out that "From this experience, a valuable discussion developed and now we will be better equipped next time."

For our money, the spontaneous ritual of teenagers tossing roses on the water, marks the event and the memorial in a way that doesn't give in to visual cliche, and doesn't unnecessarily intrude into the most private aspects of the girl's death. With the newsroom debriefing, this situation illustrates an essential part of learning from one's successes as well as any possible mistakes. When death is newsworthy, the story needs to be covered despite the desires of those affected. However, the death and accompanying rituals can be visually reported in a way that capitalizes on the more public aspects or effects of the event.

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