(My most-recent Daily Herald column.)
Nearly every afternoon’s meeting of news editors concludes with a review of options for the next-day print edition’s most prominent Page 1 picture. On Tuesday, March 22, the day of the terrorist bombing in Brussels, the selection was especially difficult.
Editors sifted through a variety of dramatic images, all showing the destructive aftermath, some clearly too gruesome to publish, some evocative but, sadly, almost familiar in an age of too much terror. One kept calling editors’ attention.
Their first instinct, because it is the natural instinct of the Daily Herald to avoid photos that may seem to dehumanize death or sensationalize violence, was to look elsewhere. But this picture said so much.
A woman — a 40-year-old Jet Airways attendant as it turned out — sat stunned, her hair and body coated in dust, one leg draped over the metal armrest of an airport chair, her yellow uniform draped in tatters around her shoulders, a look of vacant despair as rivulets of blood trickled down her face. One foot was shoeless and already bruised and swollen, the other rested on a chairseat barely tucked into the toe of a torn black shoe. Next to her, another woman held a cellphone in a hand drenched with blood.
It was an arresting image of the human face of terrorism, and it became the photograph we used on our front page.
Managing Editor Jim Baumann, on whom fell the responsibility for choosing the picture, discussed it with his team. Ultimately, he wrote later to a reader upset by our use of the picture, “I just felt that the photo would move people — to not just shrug this off as violence perpetrated thousands of miles away but violence perpetrated on people just like us.”
There are arguments to be made with every scene of disaster or devastation. Our editors hold to a philosophy that recognizes a certain vulnerability of our audience. Once a person sees that picture of horror and devastation, it can’t be unseen. We have a responsibility to respect the wide range of sensibilities among hundreds of thousands of readers, and we take it seriously.
Sadly, there is much tradition to call upon for such decisions, including a naked young girl running screaming from her burning village in Vietnam, a college student crying out for help next to a dead Kent State classmate, a firefighter holding the corpse of a dead baby at the Murrah Federal Building after the Oklahoma City bombing and too many more. If you think we take pleasure or rush to profit from such sensational pictures, it may help you to consider the words of the Georgian public Broadcaster special correspondent who took the Brussels photo we featured. Ketevan Kardava stood only a few feet from where the first explosion went off. When she “realized I was alive,” she sought both to help others and to do her job.
“I was shouting “Doctor! Doctor! Doctor! And no one was there …,” she told USA Today in a telephone interview. “In that very moment, I realized that to show the world what was happening in this moment of terror, a photo was more important.”
Now, she told USA Today in the interview you can read at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/03/23/iconic-brussels-photo-blast-nidhi-chaphekar/82170868/, she’s not sure she can continue her job as a journalist.
The point, Baumann stresses, is that “we sweat them all.”
A day after the bombing, Daily Herald editors agreed that a particular picture of a line of people at a memorial best captured the diversity of the people grieving. But a close look left it open to serious misinterpretations. A different picture was selected, but not without reservations.
Did we make the right choice? Whether on the day of the tragedy or the day after, it’s impossible to say for sure. Unfortunately, though, there is one certainty. We will have to make others like it far too many times.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.