The Digital Journalist
Judgment Day
May 2007

by Peter Howe

I have a new definition of heaven. It's the place, wherever it may be, that the words Anna, Nicole and Smith are never used consecutively. Although I was aware of the saga of the former Playboy bunny and her very old, very rich husband, I was amazed to see so much ink and so many hours of airtime wasted on covering the death of this woman whose insignificance was exceeded only by her vulgarity. If this wasn't enough, her demise was followed by the tasteless spectacle of establishing the paternity of her child through the DNA testing of multiple claimants that turned parenthood into some kind of awful reality game show. And the winner is……!

It wasn't just the tabloids in either print or broadcast form that participated in this trashfest either. The coverage ran the gamut of news outlets, including The New York Times, who clearly thought that this news was fit to print – and print – and print – and print. It went on for weeks. There has been a trend recently for the same story to be reformatted every day so that a different aspect of whatever the frisson du jour is can be examined, turned over, analyzed by experts, and have psychologists look into the minds of the chief protagonists (although in the case of ANS this would have been almost impossible.) It produces an overload of information that instead of taking the reader/viewer deeper into the story has the opposite effect; it becomes the journalistic equivalent of Novocain.

The other disturbing aspect of this obsessive regurgitation of picayune detail is that it is now applied in equal measure to the extremely trivial and the extremely important. Thus Ms. Smith and her legion of lovers are paid as much attention as the evasions of the Attorney General of the United States; the insults by the pathetic Don Imus towards the Rutgers women's basketball team receive the same amount of deliberation as the career path of Paul Wolfowitz's girlfriend. Because of this, when a devastatingly important event such as the Virginia Tech massacre is treated in the same fashion it is trivialized. There was a report of a sign on that college's campus that read, "V[iginia] T[ech] go on; Media go away," a sentiment that I found myself echoing.

One of the ethical questions with which photo editors have to constantly wrestle is: When does a depiction of violence become gratuitous? My yardstick was to ask myself another question, namely, is this image of violence or the results of violence going to help the reader make more sense of the story, and give vital information, or are we considering its publication merely to shock or thrill? When you apply the same standard to the coverage of the Virginia Tech carnage it's difficult not to come to the conclusion that much of it was inappropriate. Although video recordings of the angry ramblings of a psychopath may be of interest to a mental health professional, they did nothing to enhance my understanding of why Cho Seung-Hui did what he did, or how we should prevent a similar incident from happening. It seems that in the area of gratuitous journalism, photographers and photo editors are held to a higher standard than their print or television counterparts. Early on in the war in Iraq USA Today published a photograph on its front page of a dead Iraqi soldier. This caused a storm of protest from their readers that contained such comments as "I don't want to see dead people at breakfast." To me this was important information that the paper was giving the reader, that people get killed in war. Obvious though it may seem, it's too often forgotten, especially when we contemplate embarking on a similar misadventure.

When news organizations pounce on the same bone and chew it over for days and days other important stories that happen concurrently are often under-reported. The day after the Virginia Tech shootings 148 civilians were killed in Iraq, nearly five times the total deaths in Virginia, and yet this was mentioned briefly in comparison to the Blacksburg coverage. Maybe we're just inured to the violence in that broken land, or because it's not within our national boundaries we don't care as much. Maybe we don't care at all about any of this. The New York Times online has a panel showing the site's top ten most e-mailed stories, and during this time of horror the number one place was taken by a piece titled "But What If You Got Hit By a Taxi?" that was about the trend in men's underwear towards brightly colored, patterned briefs.

The delta in accountability between photographers and other journalists has also been highlighted by the recent spate of firings and suspensions for Photoshop adjustments that resulted in career adjustments for several photographers, some of them highly respected and awarded. The image manipulations in question ranged from the egregious to the minimal, and in certain cases seemed to me to smack of PC disease. Of course the content of a photograph shouldn't be altered in a way that deceives the viewer, but sometimes its presentation can be enhanced and made more powerful. One of the best and bravest combat photographers of the 20th century, Don McCullin, openly admits that one of his most famous photographs, that of a dead North Vietnamese soldier, was manipulated. He came across the young warrior at the battle of Hue, and arranged the dead man's possessions around him to show that this was someone with a mother, a girlfriend, and that he was a human being as well as the enemy. McCullin said of the picture, "I felt I was making a statement on behalf of this boy. Dead soldiers can't speak anymore, but I can speak for them." I wonder if Don would have been fired by today's Sunday Times in London if he had done the same thing in Iraq.

At the same time I haven't noticed many dismissals of the senior editors and media executives who accepted the administration's rationale for going to war without questioning it, digging deeper into the facts, or doing any of the things that journalists are supposed to do. Instead they rolled over on their backs and became part of the massive deception that was perpetrated on the American public. If that wasn't a distortion of the truth then I don't know what is, and yet as far as I know there has been little soul- or conscience-searching by the editors whose job it was to look beneath the mirrored surface, and most of them still seem to have their jobs.

Determining what to publish, especially when the material depicts the extremities of human existence, is the most important decision that journalists working in a democracy can make. It's also something that ultimately cannot be taught. You can issue guidelines, teach ethical practices, and any number of other tools that can help, but when it comes right down to it, we rely upon the good judgment of journalists to make the right decisions. In recent months that quality seems to have been woefully lacking from the editors and producers of this country's news media.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor