The standards for showing grief vary, depend on many factors

There’s no easing into my job here at The Tennessean. After a relatively slow day of training on Monday, the past three days have been hectic, filled with news and lots of meetings.

It’s only been four days and we’ve already had a stimulating ethics conversation about a photograph of a grieving widow.

Thankfully these conversations don’t come along often and I’m grateful that my years at the Missouri School of Journalism gave me chances to practice these kinds of conversations in relaxed, educational settings.

Officer Molly Bowden

Officer Molly Bowden

We had a similar sort of conversation in Columbia when police officer Molly Bowden was killed in 2005. We ran a photo in the Columbia Missourian of her in her casket, with another officer leaning over her to pay his respects.

At the Des Moines Register, we probably would have run the photo. In New York, at the Associated Press, we would have circulated the photo. But here in Nashville, we have some interesting circumstances that I’ve never dealt with before.

In my 35 years in the business we are slowly responding to the complaints from readers about showing grieving people, everything from a crying at a funeral to crying over a missing last-minute basketball shot. The public sees this as preying on them at their emotional worst. We debate whether there’s really any journalistic value to these images or whether we use them just to sell papers and draw in viewers. If there is, is it worth the trade-off of the sense of violation and intrusion we impart on those we photograph.

Today was the funeral for 94-year-old Grand Ole Opry member Little Jimmy Dickens and among the photos many made by photojournalist Larry McCormack was a shot of Dickens’ widow, Mona, her face contorted with grief as she followed her husband’s casket from the building.

It was powerful. Everyone who saw it had a visceral reaction to it. But you’ll never see it. We aren’t going to publish it.

Here in Nashville, even though it’s a large (and growing) city, we’re dealing with the sensibilities of The South. People here expect to be treated with more respect than how people are treated in New York or L.A. In Music City, much like covering politics in Washington, D.C., if you burn your sources, you’re dead. Piss off a publicist and you could lose access to many key entertainers in town.

At the Missourian, we made the decision to run the Bowden photo because of its power, but we were able to lessen the impact by running it on an inside page of the print paper, small and in black and white.  We also published an editor’s note explaining our reasoning for publishing the photograph.

McCormack’s photo was ironically too good. It was too close, too sharply focused, showed her face too well and too emotional. There was nothing we could do to lessen its impact — for the online gallery, we couldn’t run it smaller; running it in black and white instead of color wasn’t going to lessen the impact; and we didn’t have another version of the picture — he got off just the one frame.

The photojournalist did the right things: he shot the photo then brought it to the attention of editors so we could decide whether to publish it.

As a photojournalist it hurts not to publish such a strong photo, but this is for the greater good. It’s a decision that preserves our relationship with our sources, protects the image of the news organization and respects the community standards.

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6 responses to “The standards for showing grief vary, depend on many factors

  1. Thank you for such an interesting and thoughtful post, Karen. As a long-time journalist and human, I have all sorts of feelings about the situation you describe. I have worked at newspapers in Des Moines and Columbia, but not the South. I hadn’t thought about region/location playing a role in these kinds of decisions, and that’s interesting to me.

    I like that you and your colleagues are discussing the issue, and I like that you’re talking to people in the community. I hope these discussions continue in and out of the newsroom, and that they include an array of people, so that a variety of voices can be heard. (Sometimes newspaper leaders get the idea that “everyone” feels a certain way, when, maybe, the only people who do are a vocal, organized minority–or, perhaps, a big advertiser or the editor’s kid.) 🙂

    Not that you asked, but I’m unsure whether I agree or disagree with the position the paper took in this case (and I so appreciate the other examples you provided for context). I absolutely agree with you that Larry McCormack was right to shoot the photo and that newsroom leaders must weigh the journalistic value of publishing such a photo. But in many cases, “journalistic value” is a gray area.

    And when it comes to sources, unless a journalist commits an egregiously unethical act–such as intentionally lying in print—it’s impossible to predict whether a source will feel “burned.” I’ve seen some become infuriated at the most basic, innocuous (but newsworthy and accurate) detail, while others seem to accept and understand the importance of reporting what they’d call “negative news” about them or their organizations. Of course, trying to please sources can quickly become a slippery slope, one that distracts from the true mission of the paper, which is to serve readers. (Or is it? Some would undoubtedly disagree with me.) Yet, in this case, you’ve heard from readers that they don’t want to see photos of grieving people. The decision to hold the photo was made, in part, to serve them while weighing journalistic value (and the other photos you had).

    It’s a tough one, Karen. Through your words here, you give us a visceral sense of the power of viewing this image. Part of me feels sad that the photo did not run, and here’s why: Photographs that bring us face-to-face with raw emotion go deeper than reporting the news event. They stir up feelings (which some people don’t want to feel), reveal truths about the human experience and connect us all. What does a photo like that tell us about love? About death and life?

    And where do you draw the line? I’m thinking of photojournalists who risk their lives to uncover the ugly truths of war, poverty and injustice, which, of course, takes us back to journalistic value. I respect the process you’ve described and the decision that was made–and I know you personally to be an excellent journalist and caring person. You’re also a great writer, Karen, because this post has kicked me in the gut. I can’t believe I’ve written so much here…I appreciate your indulgence. (You’re probably saying, “get yer own damn blog!”)

    Congratulations on jumping right in! I’m excited for you as you explore your new city and job.

    • Hi Kellye, I’m glad you liked the post and thank you for your comments. (And I don’t mind the length.) You hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “Photographs that bring us face-to-face with raw emotion go deeper than reporting the news event. They stir up feelings (which some people don’t want to feel), reveal truths about the human experience and connect us all.” There are times and situations in which journalism needs to teach or remind people of the pain of situations, and it’s all shades of gray, not black and white answers. We all know the death of a loved one is torturous and maybe we shouldn’t show it. But if that loved one died from someone else’s drunk driving or texting while driving, maybe that’s a message we should be telling. It’s all relative and each situation should come with at least a short discussion as to whether the photo should be published.

  2. Hey Karen,

    Didn’t The Tennessean run some pictures of folks grieving when George Jones died? (The greatest country singer of all times). Perhaps they weren’t in The Tennessean, but I thought they were. Anyway, On one hand I can see how some people may object to strong photographic images but I could see it if it were really bloody, destructive, Cleary-in-poor-taste type of photos but most papers never run anything like that anyway. Have times changed so much that casket photos or people grieving shouldn’t be run in a newspaper? I say the public needs to buck up and be a little tougher. There are a lot worse images in society. And since when are tears of joy taboo? Maybe a note to the readers explaining what kind of photos are off limits and which aren’t? Seem odd to have to hold the reader’s hand and explain what you intend to print. But what the heck do I know? Nothing.

    Nice work anyway, Karen, and I’m glad to see you’re right back on the saddle!

  3. Sorry for all the typos. Trying to rush.

  4. Good morning, Karen. You make an excellent point with your examples of the death of a loved one because of drunk or distracted driving. In this case, Little Jimmy Dickens was a beloved and important public figure, and it was appropriate that the paper covered the funeral. I just looked at Larry McCormack’s online photo gallery, and I think he did a great job. And I agree that it’s all relative and each situation needs to be looked at individually. Cheers!

  5. PS have you ever thought about teaching? 😉

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