Joyce Terhaar

Joyce Terhaar: Editors wrestle with publishing violent images

Published: Sunday, Sep. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am

The day started with a photograph of a dead body by a midtown Sacramento train track. It ended with far more graphic images of bodies, including very young children, all out of Syria.

In the space of about a week in mid-August, Sacramento Bee editors huddled repeatedly to debate how we should play graphic and sometimes very personal photographs from crime and accident scenes in Sacramento, as well as chaos and carnage in Egypt and Syria. The photographs were of violence, blood and the dead, sometimes covered or wrapped and sometimes not.

While the issue of graphic imagery was the same, the stories were not. In Sacramento, the scenes were of incidents that happen with some regularity – a suspected drug deal gone bad and an accident. You know the news in Syria and Egypt – chemical weapons dropped on residential neighborhoods in Syria with more than 1,400 dead, according to U.S. officials. Hundreds killed in Egypt as security forces cracked down on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

Even with such different reports, the discussion included the same themes. Do the images tell an important story? Should we handle them differently online as compared with print? If so, how and why? Have our community standards evolved in the last decade to a place where you, our readers, find it acceptable to see disturbing images on the front page of the newspaper if the news so warrants? And in the case of the pictures out of Syria, which were shot and posted online by citizens, were we comfortable that they had been adequately verified as true?

We ask these questions because we don’t publish graphic images freely or randomly. We do publish them when the news matters, when it helps our understanding of world events with impact, or something of import in our community.

“I began looking at graphic and disturbing photographs differently 12 years ago,” said Mark Morris, senior editor for multimedia. “Everything changed on 9/11. Our standards have evolved because disaster photography in the age of social media has changed the way we look at photographs. It’s also changed how soon we see them.

“We have a responsibility to provide our readers with a fair and accurate picture of what is taking place in the world around them,” he said.

We’re aware, however, that it makes a difference if images are online or in print, because online you are choosing to see what you want to see. Like other news websites, we published a photo gallery out of Syria that started with a screen warning viewers that the images were graphic. In print, if a photo is on the front page, it’s there for everyone regardless of whether you made a decision to view the photo. That’s a more difficult decision for us.

That’s why we played on the back page the photograph from Syria of a row of bodies of dead children, with adults lined up to identify them. On the front page we played the photograph of a crying child who had survived the attack. A small inset photo showed two people grieving alongside wrapped bodies of victims. We included a note to readers warning them that the photo on the back page showed dead children.

The Washington Post’s printed edition reflected similar decisions. The Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News played on A1 the photograph we published on the back page. The New York Times published a different photograph of bodies on the front page.

Sue Morrow, assistant director of multimedia, said the images “were some of the most stark and graphic images I have seen in 25 years as a picture editor.”

Yet, she said, “if we edit in fear of readers being turned off from the news, we are not living up to our journalistic standards in a democracy. That would be censorship.”

Morrow was most concerned that the images be fully authenticated, which was done by The Associated Press.

Once we were confident the images were real, the decision was about community standards. Some of you see the front page as you’re eating breakfast. Others inadvertently, maybe in line at the store or sitting in a coffee shop. Others have children young enough that you would prefer to shield them from such images. Those concerns are part of our internal debate, as we consider whether the news of a photograph warrants the A1 placement, or whether there is another way to give the story the weight it needs in the paper but allow you to choose which image to see.

Increasingly, though, we all agree that more of you are willing to see sometimes disturbing images to be informed. That belief is largely unscientific, based on reader complaints, lack of complaints, readership patterns online and conversations in the community. Even so, we are more cautious with photographs from this region because of the personal ties, particularly if the news doesn’t warrant a graphic image.

“Much has changed over the past decade with the pervasiveness of television and Internet news, which is available 24/7,” said Tim Reese, assistant director of multimedia. “I believe there is a general acceptance of more graphic images in our daily lives.”

Reese is the editor of our photo blog, The Frame, which showcases world events. Because viewers can choose to click through the blog gallery, his choices are different from print editing. “I have run graphic pictures many times in The Frame, but with a disclaimer at the beginning of the post, and a black window-shade over the graphic pictures,” Reese said. Viewers who want to see the photograph click the window-shade.

In those situations, you decide for yourself what you want to see. In print, we’ll continue to debate community standards. And if we miss the mark, I’d encourage you to let us know.

Reach Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar at (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar.

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