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

And the Winner Is...
A Picture Too Brutal to Show

It was not much of a surprise when four out of five judges voted for a picture by Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I) photographer Mike Urban to win the Best of Photojournalism in the Domestic News Single photo category. In a field of 600, the picture stood out. But the publication choices surrounding that photo---both for print and the Web---sparked intense ethical discussions among the judges, news photographers, newsroom managers, NPPA and Poynter Institute personnel, between the two of us, but unfortunately, not for the citizens of Seattle.

This case is an ethical goldmine. Should a picture of a woman seemingly being sexually molested by a crowd during the 2001 Seattle Mardi Gras be published as part of the local news coverage at the time? Should it be published as one of the contest winners? Should it be digitally altered to protect the identity of the woman in the image? Should the picture be given to the police?

The Seattle P-I declined to publish the photograph. The Poynter Institute that helped sponsor the contest declined to publish it on its contest winners' Web site. The NPPA published an unaltered version of the picture in its gallery of entries, but used an altered version on its Web site after the picture won first place and plans to include that altered version in the annual Best of Photojournalism book. Finally, P-I news managers gave the picture to the police.

Where to start? Well, wait. There are more issues.

They include the irony that a non-published picture might demonstrate the "best" of photojournalism, whether entering the contest put self-interest before protecting the victim, and under which conditions journalists should publish offensive photos anyway.

Stepping back in visual journalism history, we heard no suggestion that the Vietnam-era images by Eddie Adams and Nick Ut, the video of the Rodney King beating taken by George Holliday, and ash-covered office workers on 9-11 should be withheld out of sensitivity to the victims. Certainly, one wouldn't want to suggest that distribution of these images caused viewers and victims less suffering than distribution of the Urban photo would cause a woman victimized by the Seattle mob.

Whatever the nature of their initial assault or trauma, victims and survivors often report feeling further victimized by published photos or videos of the event.

Yet, sexual abuse is treated differently by the U.S. news media from any other kind of assault. The differentiation, while seemingly protective of the almost exclusively female victims, creates a false distinction between crimes involving the breasts and genitals and those that don't. For example, victims of domestic violence are routinely identified in pictures and text, although the connections between this kind of violence and sexual pathology of abusers are well documented.

Sexual assault happens with fists and the ability to overpower victims as well as with fingers and the ability to penetrate. Some perpetrators of domestic violence report satisfaction after assaults akin to sexual gratification. If victims of sexual assault deserve special consideration by news organizations, then so does every woman who has been beaten by her boyfriend.

The exposure and apparent fondling of the Seattle victim makes the attack no more or less sexual in nature than if she had been clothed, but surrounded and terrorized by the pictured mob. There are professionally valid reasons for choosing to withhold this photo, but we would argue that the supposedly sexual nature of the assault is not one of them. We are not in favor of less sensitive treatment of assumed victims of sexual attacks; it is simply that we are in favor of consistent treatment of victims, regardless of the external perception of the nature of their assault.

Among the valid reasons for withholding the photo is the fact that it is impossible to tell, from viewing the still picture, just what is going on with each of the identifiable people in the picture. The photographer is certain that the woman was attacked and that he was not in a position to assist her. But, no one can say with certainty that all of those pictured perpetrated a molestation. Were some of them helping her escape? Without further information, branding each of these individuals as a molester seems to be a dubious claim.

The P-I's sensitivity to the victim, who chose not to come forward, is perhaps an admirable example of journalistic restraint. The job of journalists is to relay needed information to citizens for self-governance and to do that job without causing unjustified harm. The Seattle P-I had a plethora of pictures and text to tell citizens about the brutal assaults associated with the 2001 Mardi Gras. They could do so, and did so, without showing this particular image.

Seattle P-I executive editor Ken Bunting said that along with the decision not to publish the photo, management made the unusual choice to turn over the picture and other photos to local law enforcement. "We called the assault to their attention," he said. In a previous column, we discussed in depth the problems of journalistic cooperation with law enforcement. But, we worry here about the long term effects for staff. However unusual the P-I's offer might have been from the paper's point of view, management should not be surprised when law enforcement officials come back early and often with the hope that reporters and photographers might help out.

Just how the NPPA contest committee should handle unpublished entries in the future is an ongoing discussion, according to Poynter visual journalism group leader and conference co-chair Kenny Irby. "Some think that journalistic intent is enough," he said. Others, including him, believe that it is not journalism if it is not published. It is unusual that unpublished photos or text would be submitted or considered for awards. In the future, Irby said that news organizations may, at least, be asked to explain the submission of any unpublished photos.

But, then, what to do with the problematic winning image when it turns out to be judged the best? NPPA found a creative alternative between publishing and not. While we were not able to see the photo as it was submitted, judges' comments consistently affirm that the digitizing of the woman's face did not distract from the impact or message of the photo. According to MSNBC Director of Multimedia Brian Storm, who served as a judge for the competition, "I saw the woman's face in the picture before it was altered and I don't believe her expression would change a viewer's reaction to the picture or clarify how she was feeling. Her face shows little to no emotion...." Storm also suggested that viewer identification is stronger because the victim is not identified. "By hiding the woman's face, she represents not a single woman, but all women who have been sexually abused," he said.

While the photo ran as submitted in the Domestic News Single category on the Web site, it was removed the day after the category was judged, according to contest coordinator Carolyn Foy. The victim's identity was obscured before it was seen again, as part of a news story on the controversy, published on the NPPA Web site. The Poynter Institute declined to publish the picture among its display of winners on its Web site because the P-I didn't publish the picture. "As a school of journalists, we supported the newspaper's decision not to publish," Irby said.

This was the first year that the Poynter Institute has been a sponsor of the contest. According to a posting from Poynter on its "Forums" site, "The award was given by NPPA, not the Poynter Institute. Poynter provided facilities for judging and Poynter's Kenny Irby served as co-chair for the contest, but Poynter was not involved in selecting winners. NPPA has posted the picture on its site, We have not provided a direct link to the image, as we feel that would be equivalent to publishing the image."

"The reality is that different people make different choices," said Irby. The difference is healthy for news rooms and for democracy.

Ending up with a difference in opinion is not as important, ethically speaking, as the commitment to a deliberative and inclusive decision making process. The NPPA decision to publish the altered photo was made by the Executive Committee based on a recommendation from the judges and the members of the contest committee, said Clyde Mueller, NPPA President. It is important to note that in an email message to the NPPA listserv, NPPA Vice President Mike Sherer disagreed with the decision to publish the image on the Web site and in the Best of Photojournalism book. However, Sherer praised the deliberation process as "respectful and thorough."

Like others considering the controversy of this contest submission, the two of us find ourselves torn between being sensitive to a woman who had a horrific experience and being sensitive to the photojournalism profession in which the role of its members is to record and publish unusual events that are captured with still or moving-image cameras.

Like many others regarding this case, we are of two minds. So, we're doing something a little unusual with this column---we are offering two different conclusions:

Elliott's conclusion:
Ultimately, I am comfortable that some images are taken, but not shared with the general audience. This image is "a hellofa picture" and should have been entered in the Best of Photojournalism contest. I applaud the judges' willingness to simultaneously award a journalist for his ability to produce the image under the pressure of mob violence and also to reward the news organization for refraining from publication. It is far too rare that professional associations acknowledge the ethical choice to not publish a photograph or air a video clip.

Lester's conclusion:
The picture should have been published in the Seattle newspaper when it was first offered by Mike Urban. And it should have run without digital alteration. Likewise, the Poynter Institute should have run the image and without alteration. Sponsors for journalistic contests should not second-guess the choices of contestants. And although I am deeply concerned about the woman's victimization, as with other pictures that chronicle disturbing events, it is important that members of a community, as well as journalists, be shown---as no words can---the horror its citizens are capable of performing on one another.

To view the altered version of the image, click here.

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