Decompressing

This has been a week for the books. I had a one-day weekend and then hit the ground running Monday, only to run headlong into the bloodiest police shootout in Memphis-area history at the end of the week.

West Memphis shooting A1 I don’t know exactly what happened, other than it was awful. Just awful. Awful and weird.

But I am in the business of awful. I see and hear a lot of it, every day. I miss a lot of it too. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a lot of awful out there. When you work in the industry I have come to love, you come to accept the awfulness as it comes. You have to. And you have to think of it from the perspective of am I doing my job? Which is weird, because it necessitates that you check your emotions at the door. It must seem crass to some people that, during a tragedy like this one, I agonized over type size and gutter widths and visual balance. But those things matter.

Events like the West Memphis shootout really test a news organization’s mettle. For all the paper’s struggles and faults, I feel like we covered the hell out of this story. It was awesome to see the newsroom buzzing with activity until late into the night. The story, which was so weird and vague to begin with, took a definite turn for the nutty late into the night when the reporters began really tracking down who the people in the white van were.

There’s been lots and lots of debate over the photograph we used on the website and on A1. Many people seem to think that as soon as we got a shot of a dead person, we did a little jig and slapped it on the front page just to sell newspapers. Many people seem to think we delight in the chance to broadcast carnage far and wide. I guess that’s a fun way of thinking about the evil mainstream media, which obviously want to ruin life for everyone, but it wasn’t like that at all.

All night long, in comments everywhere, I read that we should be ashamed of ourselves, that we’d stooped to some morally reprehensible level for depicting a dead kid. We were accused of sensationalizing his death, and of needing ethics lessons, and of having standards lower than Fark and the National Enquirer. Someone even compared publishing the photo to publishing the names of rape victims.

I have some very strong visceral reactions to these criticisms. But I’m trying to be diplomatic here and not belittle anyone. (Look, ma! I am growing up!) I think having this debate is good, and I’m glad people are engaged and thinking about news and how it works. (I wish they would think about it more.)

Thursday, we looked at the photo and all remarked at how young the guy in it looked. But that was pure speculation at the time (and my argument is, he’s 16? wow, that makes he photograph even more compelling than before). What mattered was the weight of the story that that picture told. That is a freaking great news photograph. Alan Spearman took the photograph that will define this incident. That is an image that speaks to the violence of the situation that thirty inches of narration just can’t quite get at.

I’m glad our ME wrote this, even though a part of me gets so tired of having to explain why the newspaper does the basic things it does. I mean, we have commenters incredulous that we didn’t blur out the kid’s face (uh … ), and one who even tried to argue that it’s illegal to publish photos of dead minors. There are some very real misconceptions driving people’s ideas of what news is and should be, and I have no doubt that our own actions have contributed to that in the past.

People always say, “How would you feel if that was YOUR son/brother/dad/etc. in that picture?!” Well, I’d feel pretty terrible, I’m sure. But every person everywhere is someone’s son/brother/cousin/mother/lover. We can’t choose to stop short of documenting these events just because someone out there is going to have a real hard time with that documentation. No story would ever be told were that the case.

I understand why people are upset. It’s an upsetting photograph. It’s an upsetting ordeal entirely. But dishing out “shame on you” after “shame on you” to the paper, what’s that about, exactly?

Well, I can tell you I’m not ashamed. There was a story that needed to be told. Some terrible shit went down in West Memphis, and the daily newspaper documented he hell out of it. I’m proud. Somebody had to do it. I’ll proudly call myself part of the team that did.

Fun fact: The body laid below the fold in the rack (intentionally), so the idea that we put a dead body on the page to sell papers doesn’t hold much water anyway.

9 thoughts on “Decompressing

  1. Pingback: Morning Coffee – Hail No | Speak to Power

  2. Nice to read your take on it. I was surprised when I saw it on the web site that evening (not even knowing he was a teenager). My own teenager asked me, “Are they allowed to use pictures of dead bodies like that?” I didn’t know the answer. It was…surprising, if not completely shocking.

    But the INCIDENT was shocking. How could the photo that illustrates it not be? And to people who say, “How would you feel if that was your son/brother/father…” I say, “I’d be far more devastated if my son/brother/father had killed two policeman than if a photo of his dead body was on the front page of the paper.”

  3. You wanna know why things never change? Why things get this bad? Because when you show people what’s going on in their community, their state, their country, their world, they turn their heads and say “How dare you make me uncomfortable! How dare you show me truths I can’t process or handle! You should be ashamed!” They are transferring their shame on to the photographer. They want someone to blame so they don’t have to accept responsibility for their role in society, or their feelings of helplessness. Photos like this should spark outcry against the nearest governing agencies – and bad parents, dammit – first, and ripple outward from there. A demand for a safe community. A demand for a drug-free community. A demand for a stronger, rehabilitative juvenile justice system. But no. It’s the photographer/editor/publisher’s fault.

    The newspaper – in it’s best intention – is trying to tell you something, people!

    Stop looking away.

  4. Bravo to the CA. I think if more graphic images of reality were portrayed more often, then perhaps we might see a civilization aghast at what we actually allow our reality to be. And, you know, perhaps shock it into making some changes.

  5. In one respect, I was surprised you ran it. That was verboten in the old days. But in another respect, I’m not surprised, because the entire news culture has been changed in the age of blogs, web sites, Youtube, etc. That photo would have been all over the place anyway. May as well be on the front page of the CA.

  6. Sure, it’s a stupid canard that you did this to “sell more newspapers.” If newspapers could save themselves that way, they would put pictures of bodies out there all the time. But what of this hallowed “story” you speak of? If it were a picture of one of the dead officers, would you have run it? Proving that it depends on whose “story” you speak. Your “story” involves a worthless teenager. That’s your narrative. Easy to call that one. It would have been far riskier for you to run a photo of one of the dead cops. Recall on 9/11, when the New York Times ran a photo of the man in the tower plunging to his death. No matter that the man is unidentified to this day. No matter how it told the story — oh man, did it tell the story. They ran the picture once — and pulled it. Too much risk. None of that sensitivity here, because it was just a contemptible little hoodlum. What I find offensive is that you don’t admit the real reason you ran the photo. That it would have been shown everywhere anyway, and as for the “story,” it’s only the one that reflects your narrative.

  7. Nooneinparticular, if memory serves, you have been asked to refrain from commenting on this blog. I don’t care what alias you use.

  8. And, to answer your question, I’m not speaking of a “hallowed” story. I’m talking about a goddamned “holy shit, things went real bad in Arkansas today and some people shot some cops and some cops shot up their van and killed them and holy shit, we managed to get in among the shit to take this photograph that will illustrate the unholy clusterfuck that unfolded in an incredibly public space” story. A news story.

    We didn’t know and could not confirm the age of the person in the photo at press time. “He looks young” is not necessarily a reason to stop the presses. No one on the desk was thinking of that kid as a hoodlum, and his picture was not used to teach anyone any lessons. If you honestly think that, then you are more cynical than I am and let me tell you, that is a fucking feat in and of itself.

    Follow the news timeline. That photo hit the ether before the “worthless teenager” narrative ever had a chance to germinate and the herculean efforts to twist that fact are just more static than truth and I bet at your heart you know that.

    The “what if you had a photo of a dead cop, would you run it?” angle is a fun diversion but we didn’t have a photo of a dead cop (it’s fun to imagine photographers as able to shoot from every possible angle at every location even before we know shit’s going down, isn’t it!) so it’s a bit moot at this juncture in the discussion. I’ll be happy to mull that horrible fucking question on the inevitable day a photo of a dead cop comes across my desk.

    I’m sure it will happen and I’m sure we’ll make the best decision we know how and I’m sure at least half the people out there will think it makes us bad people.

  9. Kalisa, that’s funny about what E said. Tell that young man to look up the First Amendment!

    Cyndie and Tamara, there is nothing people hate more than when media act as a mirror. They don’t want to see, and they just get pissed off at the messenger.

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