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.
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.