Rebecca Tromsness and Siobhan McClelland

The front-page photo: bullseye or bust?

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When newspaper editors get disturbing photos, their decisions on whether to post the photos on the front page can have lasting effects

The New York Post’s decision for its Dec. 4 front page photograph, showing a man about to be run over by a subway train, landed the paper in controversial territory.

“I think that they ran this picture thinking that their audience would love it,” says David Swick, an assistant professor at the University of King’s College. However, the picture had the opposite reaction, leading many to criticize the Post and question the ethics of splashing its front cover with a photo of a man’s last dying moments.

This is hardly the first time there’s been backlash over a newspaper’s questionable ethical decisions for front-page placement of disturbing or graphic images.

Back on October 18, 2010, editors at the Toronto StarGlobe and Mail, and Ottawa Citizen had to decide whether to publish controversial photos of Russell Williams posing in his victims’ undergarments on their front pages the next day.

Williams had pled guilty to the murders of Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd, as well as two counts of sexual assault, two counts of unlawful confinement, and 82 break-and-enters, where he stole women’s and girl’s underwear, bras, and bathing suits.

After Williams pleaded guilty, the Crown began reading in an agreed statement of facts, as part of the sentencing hearing, and releasing photos of Williams posing in his victims’ undergarments to be used as court exhibits.  At that point, newspaper editors had to decide what use to make of the photos and what placement, if any, to give them in their newspapers.

The Toronto Star decided to post two photos, side-by-side, on its front page: one of Williams in military uniform, and the other with Williams posing in a girl’s bathing suit. A considerable factor in the decision was how the Star had presented its coverage of the Williams case thus far.

“From the time of Williams’ arrest, I had been fascinated, as I think most people were, by the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the case,” says Joe Hall, the managing editor at the time who made the ultimate decision that day, as editor Michael Cooke was out of the country. “While it’s not unusual for killers to lead double lives, what was extraordinary in this case was the photographic evidence of the two faces of Russell Williams. To my mind, there was no more graphic illustration of this duality than photos of the military base commander in uniform and the photos of him in women’s underwear. To run only a ‘lingerie photo’ would have been prurient and I never considered it.”

However, the decision wasn’t so clear-cut for everyone, as the Star’s newsroom was divided before the decision was made, and readers were critical of the Star’s decision after the photos were published. Public editor Kathy English ended up responding to concerns about the decision in an Oct. 22, 2010 article, explaining some of the concerns in the decision-making process. “From the outset, I had questioned senior editors as they debated publishing these images. Certainly, we all knew that publishing them would upset some readers, particularly home subscribers with young children.”

While subscribers’ children or children who would pass a newspaper box and would see these photos on the front page was a factor considered by the newsroom, Star reporter and photographer Jim Rankin, who covered the Williams case, points out there are far more graphic, disturbing photographs that are put on front pages of newspapers around the world. “There’s uprising in the Arab world. There’s bodies in the streets. There’s a lot of images that require a parent to sit down with their child and explain things.”

Sandro Contenta, a Star reporter who also covered the case, doesn’t see this as a significant factor. “Children have access to so much today on the internet,” he says. “I don’t think that [the photos] would have shocked children in the sense that my guess is many of the children wouldn’t have had the context of this man’s a serial killer.”

Certainly, many readers had concerns with the photos. On Jan. 14, 2011, the Star released the results of English’s annual poll, where members of the public had an opportunity to play editor and vote on what decision they would take in different situations. Fifty per cent of survey respondents would have decided to publish a graphic photo of Williams on page one, alongside a photo of Williams in full military uniform. The other fifty per cent would not.

Hall doesn’t regret the decision he made. He adds there have been many cases over the years where it’s been a 50-50 call, “and sometimes I’ve been right, sometimes I’ve been wrong and I’m probably sure over my career I’ve made the wrong call sometimes, but not in this one.”

Over at the Globe, editors decided not to put photos of Williams in his victims’ undergarments on the front page or inside the newspaper.

Sylvia Stead, the Globe’s associate editor at the time, says, “there was certainly a good all-round debate” about whether to run the photos on page one. Those in favour “did believe it was of news value and that it was part of the story.” However, she adds that she and other editors argued that a front page photo is something you can’t turn away from, something that the readership basically has no control over. “You don’t want to keep things from readers, but you want to put the control in their hands as much as you can whether they want to look at it or not.”

The Globe provided a photo gallery online for readers to view at their discretion.

While posting sensitive photos online seems like the solution, David Tait, an assistant professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, says that this opens up another potential danger, particularly that an organization may put 20 pictures onto its website, when the story only needs one or two photos. “Are we putting 20 pictures on the website just because we can?” he asks. “Are we pandering now?”

However, Stead stands by the Globe’s decision. “I think lots of times you do look back and question decisions,” she says, “but I feel quite comfortable that this was the right balance to strike.”

For Ottawa Citizen Editor-In-Chief Gerry Nott, the Williams trial was “the most intellectually challenging newspaper judgment call” that he’s been involved with in almost 30 years. He decided not to run the lingerie photos on the front page, but ran them inside the paper with a warning. “The significant issue for the Citizen, unlike the Star, unlike the Globe, is that the crimes happened in our coverage area,” he says, adding that many of the photos were from break-ins in Orleans, a suburb of Ottawa.

“There is, I think for us, a heightened sensitivity about that because this man was their neighbour and people knew where he lived, and then you’re sort of getting into issues around identity of sexual assault victims, although, arguably, were they sexual assault victims? Maybe. Maybe not. It was close enough that I wasn’t going to try to risk any of that in this particular market. Another market, I might have done something differently.”


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