Journalism 101: Would You Publish This Photo?
With all of True/Slant saying farewell, it feels lonely posting anything at all today. But before I sign off, there’s one last thing I’d like to share, a photograph I stumbled across several months back while paging through one of my old journalism textbooks. Looking at the image triggers flashbacks to my Journo 101 class in the basement of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, where during one of our exercises our professor showed us shocking images and asked us to decide what was newsworthy and what was sensational. We were shown countless photographs that day. But only one remains seared into my memory, this shot from the San Jose Mercury News. Here’s what the caption read:
Some editors who ran this photograph thought the image taught a lesson in a way words could not: This is what can happen when a youth tries to climb a six-foot fence with spikes on top. Twenty-six percent of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News journalists said they would publish the photo, and 23 percent of their readers agreed. (The boy survived the piercing.)
This image of The Pierced Boy mesmerized me when I first saw it — just as the Faces of Death videos once did as a teenager. The photo is raw and unfiltered in its honesty. And if you’ve ever severely injured yourself, it probably conjures that moment of panic you experienced just as you realized what was happening. But what purpose does it serve the public in publishing it? I wondered this when seeing the image again for the first time in over 10 years, and asked a couple editors from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette what they thought.
“I would probably not publish this photo,” said Andy Starnes, photo editor at the paper. “I don’t really think there is much to be learned from it and find that reason somewhat self-serving. I think most people would be disturbed by the image and while not believing in censorship per se, I find little to be gained from running it.”
When I then corresponded with John Allison, an associate editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, we talked more about ethics in photojournalism.
“My hunch is that the ethics for photojournalism have not changed much from 10 years ago in terms of the publishing of images that are shocking or possibly distasteful,” Allison told me by email. “At least for the sober, mainstream press — and I think that our impulse is to remain or even become more ‘decent’ — rather than try to compete with TMZ or Web sites with wild images, we are the solid, sensible oasis.”
Allison’s final words there, the notion that stalwart local newspapers often remain the “the solid, sensible oasis” says something about the business of news in general. There are still readers, hundreds of thousands I assume, who still view their local newspaper (whether in print or electronic format) as a valuable community resource. With cynicism so pervasive among today’s media analysis, I think it’s easy to forget that people do in fact rely on the service we all provide.
So, before I go, I wonder what your take is on The Pierced Boy: Would you publish this photograph?