“I suppose the intent was to shock, but you crossed the line.” That is what one unhappy reader had to say about a photo on Wednesday’s front page.
And his complaint wasn’t the only one. The image of a man enveloped in flames amid the protest outside Ukraine’s parliament certainly was jarring. But did it really cross the line?
News photographers are journalists, and their work is critical to understanding world events. It isn’t hyperbole to say that great photos can bring about change – and they can sum up something horrific in a way that is iconic and unforgettable. The Vietnam war is forever associated with a young girl running in shock and agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village and left her naked.
In the same way, 9/11 is the sight of the Twin Towers, one about to be hit and the other already bleeding black smoke, while the war in Iraq is four private security guards, their bodies burned and decapitated, hanging from a bridge as the residents of Fallujah cheer.
All these photos are shocking, yet hardly gratuitous. They help to convey the true nature of brutality, which is a news organization’s responsibility.
“Showing dead bodies, bloodied victims and traumatized survivors of bombings, massacres and other tragedies is justified,” according to The Globe and Mail’s editorial code, “provided the image is historically relevant and/or advances the story in a serious and considered manner; conveys information relevant to the story; and is not intended primarily to shock readers or viewers.”
Not that the power to shock should be used lightly, especially when it comes to the front page. Unlike images that appear inside the paper or online, those on page one aren’t easy to ignore, or escape if something is too graphic. (Another complaint I received recently involved a photo of a giraffe that had been killed by zookeepers and fed to the lions.)
Also, when horrific photos or videos are posted online, they can be presented in a gallery and labelled “graphic” as a warning to the faint of heart. Not an option for the front page, so extra care must be taken – and it is. Graphic images do not appear without a serious debate among senior editors.
But even newsworthy horror can have drawbacks. In this case, as another reader points out, the drama lacks a final act.
“You present a truly shocking story of an elderly Ukrainian walking whilst becoming engulfed in flames … [but] leave us wondering about the fate of this poor soul,” he writes.
Globe editors wondered the same thing (as did I) – had anyone put out the fire and saved the man’s life?
Attempts were made to find out more, but the photo editor explained that, because the image clearly had been taken from quite a distance, it was difficult, if not impossible, for the photographer to provide details.
The unhappy reader argues that, “if you couldn’t finish his story, you should never have published any of it. Surely, the man is deserving of at least this much dignity.”
But when it comes to informing the public about crucial events, there are times when personal dignity must take a back seat and, unfortunately, when the story simply has no ending.