November 17, 2010 in Opinion

Photo call came down to truth

By The Spokesman-Review
 

We published an unusual photo on the front page of Saturday’s newspaper.

The photo showed the body of a man who had fired shotgun rounds and who was killed by Spokane police officers. We’ve heard from a number of readers who found the photo objectionable and not fit for publication.

The Spokesman-Review rarely publishes photos of dead bodies, but we made an exception in this case. Let me say first that it was not a decision taken lightly. Our editors examined several important factors very carefully before deeming the photo worthy of publication. Several considerations went into the decision to publish:

• Fatal shootings in this community and others have been in the news a lot lately. Officer-involved shootings, in particular, have prompted considerable discussion in Spokane and Spokane Valley. That context seemed especially important in the examination of how to handle the photo.

• The nature of media reports about fatal shootings tends to sanitize violence. A body fully covered by a tarp, or one not shown at all, tells a far different story than the reality of the event.

• There can be deadly consequences when one chooses to begin firing a weapon, whether it’s aimed at relatives or police officers. Publishing a photo of a dead criminal suspect is not likely to deter the next suspect who is determined to use a weapon on another human being, but it does signal to a community that law enforcement officers are trained to respond with force in emergency situations.

• The shooting occurred on a Friday afternoon near a busy intersection before countless witnesses. Unlike most shootings, this one was very public and not easily ignored by anyone in the area.

Some of the readers who e-mailed or phoned to voice their objections to our photo called its use insensitive, disgusting, outrageous or in poor taste. You’ll find some letters to the editor this week voicing similar sentiments. We certainly understand that some readers think we made the wrong call. The purpose of this column is not to declare our judgment better than that of our critics, but simply to explain our reasoning. I can assure our readers that the photo we published on Saturday is not a signal that they’ll be seeing more of such images in our newspaper.

We weigh our editing decisions carefully, knowing that on occasion readers will disagree with our choices. News judgments are one of the most challenging parts of our jobs in the newsroom. I will be the first to admit that our decisions are not nearly as difficult as the ones police officers have to make in the heat of the moment. Nor does our challenge of making the right news judgments compare to the sadness and frustration that a suspect’s family must deal with in the wake of an event like Friday’s.

Each day we select stories and photos intended to inform as well as facilitate thoughtful discussion. A good newspaper sometimes has to show and tell things that some readers would rather not know or acknowledge. It has to tell the truth.

It’s one thing to be entertained by the police procedurals offered almost nightly as television entertainment; it’s another to see a sad and unfortunate fatal shooting in our streets. But what we showed in Saturday’s photograph was truthful.

Gary Graham is the editor of The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5405 or by e-mail at garyg@spokesman.com.

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