My Two Cents:
Photos from Haiti
February/March 2010

by Ron Steinman

I have no problem if people complain about what they read in print, online, or see on TV. Accept it. We are a nation of complainers. Nothing should be exempt from comment, whether positive, or, as it seems these days, mostly negative, especially on the Web. In a democracy we must be able to voice our opinions about the world around us.

However, there are those among us who fear the truth that photojournalists offer up, especially when there is a breaking story of immense tragedy such as the Haitian earthquake. There are a number of people who object to the photos we've seen in newspapers, magazines, on the Web and TV. They've complained loudly to editors and TV producers that the pictures they are showing are too graphic for the audience to see. Some claim that by complaining, they are protecting the young. Why show an unsettling image when rose-colored glasses can protect the innocent from reality? These people fear what the photos convey. They want to live in an overly sheltered world. Some voices are puritanical. Often they have an irritated tone. Many people are ultra-sensitive. These argue that the cruelty done by nature or man or by both should not enter our eyes and thus pervert us. The complainers are people who probably accept reality shows as real rather than contrived. The reality of tragedy is too real for them to accept. The biblical admonition "the truth shall set you free" is not part of their vocabulary.

Many of the photos emerging from Haiti show death and destruction. Most of the early photos showed dead bodies. Reporters on the scene described the smell from decomposing flesh. Some photos illustrated those scenes so well, there was no need for words to describe how awful life had become for the survivors.

Have we become so squeamish as to not accept the tragedy depicted in the many sad images emerging from Haiti? We send our young men to war, but we run from the reality of war when we see these men in action, wounded and sometimes dead. The horror of war is inescapable. It does not go away if we ignore it. Similarly, we cannot escape the images from natural disasters. If we turn away from the pictures an earthquake or tsunami brings, does it mean they did not occur? It does not.

Journalists should not shirk their responsibility to show and tell the worst part of any story. We should not hide the truth, meaning the ugliness of a tragedy. Even at the worst of times there are always stories of hope, redemption and a better future. As editors, we should not shun our responsibility to present the reality of a situation no matter how difficult it may be for the reader or viewer to look at a photo or read the words. People must understand that when editors publish an unsightly photo, it is not out of sensationalism but rather a sense of duty to show a generally safe world what horror is really like. Yes, that is a value judgment, but it is an honest part of an editor's decision-making, or it should be.

Though we live in an age of desired transparency, I do not feel the need to explain why I as an editor may use one photo over another. Anyway, an explanation does not always work because it is often impossible to define instinct borne out of years of experience. More often than not, those who complain the loudest refuse to accept an explanation because it does not conform to their ideals or preconceived notions. As editors, we do not have to divulge why we decide to use "this photo" rather than "that one." Or how we decide to print or tell one story over another. Importantly, we should not justify how we play a story after it appears. Journalism will not survive by bending to the will of a vocal minority. I know this will appear to be sacrilegious and even arrogant at a time in journalism when the cry of some academics, pundits, other editors and publishers is that transparency is the way to win the audience and stave off the end of journalism as we know it, but we should not apologize for our choices or justify them.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks on SCRIBD.

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