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.
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.