The Digital Journalist
The Racehorse and the Country Doctor

by Peter Howe

June 2006

For those of you who have read The Digital Journalist over the years it will come as little surprise to know that I'm a horse fanatic. All my life I've been in love with, and somewhat awed by these magnificent creatures, whose combination of strength, grace and speed has served the human race better and for longer than any other animal that has ever existed. I've ridden them since I was eight years old, and now am privileged to have a beautiful, eight-year-old chestnut partner with whom I strut our stuff in the show ring. I am also a thoroughbred racing enthusiast, and I'm sometimes conflicted about being both an equestrian and a railbird. I'm only too well aware of racing's underside (probably not much seamier than those of other sports – boxing and football immediately coming to mind) but the negatives always seem to get offset by the nerve-tingling, skin-bumping thrill of seeing a flight of horses coming into the homestretch. Racing is like baseball, one of those sports where you have to be there to fully experience all it has to offer.

I was at Churchill Downs this year to watch a lightly raced three-year-old colt win the roses by six and a half lengths, the widest margin of victory since Assault won in 1946. I consider myself fortunate that I wasn't at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore two weeks later to witness firsthand the same horse, Barbaro, break down, as the racing euphemism puts it, just a few yards out of the starting gate. The image of that elegant creature holding one leg in the air as jockey Edgar Prado desperately leaned against him to stop him from going down is both painful and haunting. What is on the other end of the emotional spectrum is the response of the public to the accident. The bushels of apples and carrots, and pounds of peppermints that have poured into the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals in Pennsylvania, along with handwritten notes as well as stacks of e-mails, is astonishing. Barbaro is probably the only horse in history to have his own e-mail address, although don't look for a quick response if you send him one. But the thing that is really extraordinary is the fact that even seasoned racegoers, of which there are relatively few, knew little about this horse before the Derby, which probably means that many of the well-wishers, some of whom were seen at the gates of the hospital in tears, didn't know him at all before he broke his leg in those first fateful steps of the second race of the Triple Crown. It is probable that many of them didn't even see the race on television.

I think that there are two lessons that we as journalists can learn from this. The first is that there is serendipity to the people and events that capture the public's imagination that is both hard to gauge and even harder to anticipate. Hundreds of children disappear in this country every year, and yet we still write articles about Etan Patz, who hasn't been seen since 1979. In the '80s other hundreds of children were infected with HIV, and yet it was one of them, Ryan White, who became the doomed poster child of the disease. Many horses die or are mortally injured on the track every year, but Barbaro is the one to whom we gave our hearts.

The other lesson that is particularly pertinent for photojournalists is that, like it or not, these are the things that people really care about. During the weekend that Barbaro was injured and operated on, how many people died in Iraq? One hundred? One thousand? Were we concerned about them? I suppose we were in a general way, but not with the intensity that we expressed to an overpriced animal and his wealthy owners that we really cared. There were no apples for Iraq. But does this obvious dissonance of emotional response invalidate our compassion for the horse? I don't think so. I think that it simply means that we operate within the confines of familiarity with greater passion than in areas that are foreign to us, and I don't mean foreign as in other countries, but foreign to our own experience. Crudely put, it means that we are more accustomed to horses than Iraqis.

The problem with this as far as photojournalists are concerned is that so many of the stories we want to tell are not familiar to our audience, which is precisely why we feel there is a need to tell them. It's not an easy hump to get over, and many of our complaints that nobody cares about anything anymore are a direct result of this mindset. People do care, as the Barbaro story amply illustrates; they just don't seem to care about the things we think they should care about. This wasn't always so; when Gordon Parks published his essay on Flavio da Silva, a poor kid from the favelas of Rio, it produced the same Barbaro-like outpouring from LIFE's readers. W. Eugene Smith's Minimata essay or his story about the country doctor also engendered a similar response. So have people changed? I don't think so. I do think that publishing has changed as the result of socio-economic forces that have caused publishers to play to the lowest common denominator because it's safe. But I also think that our increasing sense of marginalization has caused us to often, too often, react by embracing obscure, dark subjects for our work, and thinking them more important because of their obscurity and darkness. We are dismissive of the emotional power that the image of an injured horse being held upright by a tearful jockey exerts over the general public. What caused the intense reaction to the Parks essay wasn't the social injustices of Brazilian society, except indirectly; it was the connection to a poor boy dying of bronchial pneumonia. Smith's story on the country doctor wasn't about the inadequacies of Colorado's health-care system but about a good man trying to help his community, and the image that we all remember from Minimata is an emotionally charged picture of a mother and child. What these people and that racehorse have in common is that they all produce a universal reaction that is often sentimental and sometimes clichéd. (As the British writer Len Deighton once said, "Don't knock clichés; they became clichés for a very good reason.") As we move into the next phase of photojournalism with all its possibilities and potential it would be good to keep this in mind.


The news just came in of yet more death and dismemberment to journalists in Iraq. Two Britons, Paul Douglas, 48, a camera operator and James Brolan, 42, a sound technician, both working for CBS News, were killed. Correspondent Kimberly Dozier, 39, was critically wounded and has been transferred to the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. They were working on a story about how the U.S. troops in Iraq spent Memorial Day when they were hit -- exactly the sort of story that our right-wing critics say we never do. After I finish this column I'm going to start designing one of those yellow magnetic ribbons, only this one will say: Support Our Media.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor