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

Good Journalism Isn't Always Nice Journalism
When "The Harsh Truth" is the Right Ethical Choice: 11/00

When Detroit Free Press editors decided to go ahead with the September 15 front page color picture of a worker from the Medical Examiner's Office carrying the corpse of a 7-month-old baby in a translucent and bloody trash bag, they knew what was coming.

A firestorm of negative letters, phone calls and e-mails swept into the newsroom with a common, angry message-how dare you be so disrespectful of a dead child.

The editors should have known a strong reader reaction was eminent. Research shows that a murder victim's picture is more likely to be controversial when:

it is taken by a staff photographer,

it relates to a local story,

it is printed in a morning paper, on the front page, and in color,

the victim is a child, and

there is no accompanying story that fully explains the content and/or context of the image.

All of the above conditions for causing an extreme reaction from readers were met in this case.

The picture generated more than 150 responses in e-mail, faxes and letters to the editor, according to Director of Photography Nancy Andrews. And as responses to responses built upon one another, the result was a week that included two and a half page days of letters to the editor, a front page explanation from Executive Editor Bob McGruder, and a column from Public Editor, John X. Miller.

In a world in which journalism ethics is often personified by your third grade teacher wagging her finger and warning, "You better not do that," it may be hard to remember that the most difficult ethical decision is to take action that you know will provoke a negative response. It is increasingly rare to find an editor or news director who has the moral courage to print a photograph or run video that will certainly be offensive to an audience.

The decision to go with the image included examining a dozen or so different frames and discussions that included the photographer, photo editors and their bosses. The metaphor of the baby as trash, which angered readers, was exactly the reason that the picture became the journalists' obvious choice.

Photographer Gabe Tait said that when he looked through his viewfinder, he didn't know exactly what was being carried from the crime scene. He was startled by the way the bag was being carried without support for the body within. "It was like it was trash," he said. "He put it in the back of the [Medical Examiner's] truck and I thought, 'That was the baby.'"

Everyone involved in the decision to run the picture agreed that the picture was tough. But, according to Tait, "It was the harsh truth."

That truth could have been even worse. According to Andrews, "We did not use those images that showed the baby's outline more distinctly." Otherwise, the picture ran as taken.

Tait used a 80-200, 2.8 zoom lens. Cropping consisted of "taking just a little off the top and off the bottom." Sometimes a telephoto lens can compound reader anger about a picture when a wide-angle lens won't. With a tight close-up, flattened perspective, and shallow depth-of-field that the lens choice provides, readers might have assumed that the photographer was standing right in front of the medical examiner office worker violating his privacy and that of the deceased child. Readers may have felt, mistakenly, that the close-up view was chosen for the sake of sensationalism.

But the offended viewers of the Free Press picture misdirected their anger.

Readers were wrong in thinking that the front page photo illustrated a lack of respect for the infant, Miracle Jackson. Instead, the picture honored the child and the indignity she suffered at the hands of her parents, child protection workers, and even those officials designated to care for her in death. Showing that baby's "harsh truth" was an act of tremendous respect for her, but not for the people in charge.

Sawit Kanluen, the Chief Medical Examiner for Wayne County, wrote a letter of outrage published the day after the picture, explaining, "In an effort to keep all evidence intact, the bag was not placed in another carrier."

It must be a very unusual case that, upon being led to the body by the confessed killer, disallows the removal of a body in a concealing container. The next time an adult murder victim is carried from the crime scene wrapped only in the carpet remnant in which his body was stashed, that too deserves a front page photo. Of course, that picture will be a long time in coming. Adults are simply not treated that way.

In an interview, Kanluen, agreed that most usually, bodies are transported from the crime scene to the Examiner's truck by gurney, covered with a sheet. But, "with a baby," he said, "it is easier for someone to carry the body to the truck without a gurney." Easy doesn't justify the lack of respect.

Free Press editor Robert G. McGruder got it right when he explained in a front page letter to readers the next day that his job was to balance the offense to the audience against "telling our readers about a horrific story that took place in our community." But, he didn't go far enough in explaining to readers why some horrific pictures are worth it and some are not.

Nancy Andrews thinks that there were some things that could have been done better. "If I had to do it over again," she explained in an interview, "I would make it clear on day one why we ran that photo." She would have made more clear in the caption that the baby was found in the bag.

Creating community uproar is not always the right choice. But, there are ways to make sure that the predictable firestorm will be worth it.

A controversial picture must illustrate a generalized problem or demonstrate official action which viewers are not likely to appreciate without a visual message. A gruesome car accident picture is not likely to meet this test; those related to U.S. military intervention almost always do. The Miracle Jackson picture meets the test. What words could a reporter ever find to convey the scene of the baby's body being carried away in a trash bag that could match the printed image?

The next test is if the news organization is able and willing to explain why they think a picture is worth the offense it will cause at the time the picture runs. McGruder captured this idea when he admitted in his letter to readers that, "We should have provided more information in the headlines, photo captions and in the top of the story that would have told people more about why they should be concerned and how to express that concern." The Free Press staff might have helped people identify the real cause for their anger and what they might do about it.

Journalists-from editors to photographers-should remember that words and pictures alone never fully explain a complicated case. It takes words AND pictures presented in equally respectful and thorough ways to explain to readers why covering a controversial event in a controversial manner is vital to the overall well being of a community. That combination is based on ethical considerations, not a reader's notion of etiquette.

Andrews said that it was interesting to hear how the readers think about the coverage, what they want to see and what they don't. However interesting, reader outrage shouldn't be the deciding criteria. "I can't edit the paper for people who choose not to see," said Andrews.

This case, like many difficult situations, illustrates how easy it is for everyone-journalists and citizens alike-to confuse etiquette and ethics. Readers raised a question of etiquette in their letters-how dare you publish a picture that is so difficult for me to see? The answer, in this case, was the very best reason that any news organization can give-it's our job to show uncomfortable truths that readers need to know about their community. That's a chief way that media help prevent future Miracle Jackson's from being treated in the same way.

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