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Jul. 30 2010 - 10:45 am | 841 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Journalism 101: Would You Publish This Photo?

‘The Pierced Boy,’ click to enlarge. (Photo: San Jose Mercury News)

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?


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  1. collapse expand

    Personally, I would publish the photo. It is no worse than any psch 101 student gets to see and or hear with regards to depictions of Phineas Gage. And I take issue with the way that you frame the discussion.

    The issue (at least for me, as a layman) is not whether you compete with TMZ. Newspapers clearly do not. It is whether journalists talk down to me. Do you intelligently present a story? If you offer analysis, is it intelligent? Too often it is not. (not you, media in general) Too often, media sanitizes information to the point that it is not really even information anymore.

    My case and point is Rick Sanchez, who currently has three freakin hours a day on CNN. Why? Half of the time spent on his program is spent “slowing it down” or “Really considering” or some other type of attempting to speak to the stupidest person in his audience, who is undoubteldy in the day room of a mental health facility somewhere.

    Media should be about facts, and therefore, it should be about pictures. We are currently fighting two wars without pictures of coffins. We have sanitized the media to a disgusting degree. Media should speak with an informed voice and to the intelligent viewer. The less intelligent viewer will either get less of what is said, or turn away entirely, but at least society will be informed. Scrubbing the press is stupid. I look to the media to give me proper information, and sometimes, that information is best shown photographically. I am a big boy, I can take it.

    When you get into not showing the entire story, you get into questions of whether you should alter the pictures and show this crap. http://trueslant.com/charlesjohnson/2010/06/06/another-cropped-reuters-photo-deletes-another-knife-and-a-pool-of-blood/
    Just show the pictures.

    To misquote in its entirety a stupid movie- I want the truth. I can handle the truth.

    On another note, I have greatly enjoyed your blog. I think we can part in a friendly manner as both the pirates and the cubs are absolutely terrible this year, but I hope we do not have to part at all. Will you be maintaining a new personal blog or joining some other media outlet? Is there somewhere that I can follow your work?

    Best of luck.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Craig, it’s always great to hear from you. It wasn’t my attempt to frame the discussion by comparing traditional newspapers to TMZ, that was simply John Allison’s response to an open-ended question about photojournalism in general, and the competition — among so many online news outlets — to produce the most shocking visuals in an effort to drive traffic, boost clicks.

      What I wanted to do what spur discussion, see what readers/fellows True/Slant’ers would do if they were faced with the choice of running this photo or killing it. Personally, I’d run this image (and just kinda did), especially if it added context and visual clarity to the story. It’s a strong image, but it also shows that life in a neighborhood/community isn’t always pretty, and that actions have consequences.

      Re: parting in a friendly manner… this made me laugh. Man, the Pirates really are an embarrassment. But I’ve almost come to enjoy the ongoing debacle. As far as where you can follow me? You can check out Annals of Americus here: http://www.annalsofamericus.com/
      I’ll be contributing to Thought Catalog (http://thoughtcatalog.com/) in the weeks ahead too, and will have a few more announcements soon I hope. Thanks for reading and always posting such thoughtful, well-reasoned comments.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Take a look at the newest issue of time magazine. The front cover is pretty memorable. Richard Stengal discuses the debate of whether to publish the graphic photo or not in the opening pages of the magazine.

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    About Me

    I am a writer, editor, and blogger who lives and works in the once-decaying heart of America's Rust Belt (i.e. Pittsburgh, PA). My work focuses on subculture, crime, mental health, race, class, and creativity.

    My writing appears in Spin, Good, XLR8R, Next American City, RaceWire, and Swindle, among other print and online publications. I have reported on the decline of sampling in hip-hop; interviewed artists and musicians who survived Cambodia’s killing fields; investigated the struggles of U.S. military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; and shadowed graffiti writers, coaxing candid confessions about their obsession with illegal art.

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