With all the commotion over the pit bull photograph – 141 comments and counting – I thought our readers might want to hear the perspective of the person who created it. I’m also the Advocate photo/video editor, so I take responsibility for both the image and its publication.
Did the Advocate make a mistake when it published that photograph? Before the final decision was made, some of the editors at the Advocate thought it would be. The photo was deemed newsworthy, but too shocking for our readers. We recently ran photos of dead dolphins washed ashore. But this was a close-up with a lot of blood. That was just too much, a breakfast test catastrophe!
Before I tell you why I disagreed with these editors, a little background is in order. I got my start in photojournalism at a newspaper that occasionally published images of fresh corpses in the street. The Kathmandu Post covered the news of Nepal’s decade-long civil war with a raw and fearless gaze. Readers were often horrified by what was printed. But few questioned the necessity of publishing such photographs. Had the Post censored its grittiest images, it would’ve helped to exonerate a corrupt regime that had declared war on its own citizens.
When I returned to the U.S. in 2006, American newspapers were struggling to cover the Iraq War. American soldiers were dying every week, but our newspapers published almost none of these images. Publications were forbidden by law to show military coffins. Compared to Nepal, an impoverished monarchy with practically no history of free speech, American newspapers seemed timid and obedient. America's view of the Iraq War was sanitized for our protection, and our government liked it that way.
What do violent conflicts in remote parts of the globe have to do with the recent spate of pit bull attacks here in Victoria? It may surprise you to learn that photo editors around the world make similar calculations before publishing their photographs. When presented with graphic images that might be upsetting to readers, we ask ourselves: does the news value of this image outweigh the harm it might cause to society?
In this case, I answered yes. Three pit bull attacks occurred this week, threatening a few people and requiring the police to shoot three dogs. It's a danger that can't be ignored. A gritty, memorable photograph may also help to deter pit bull owners from letting their pets roam free.
What harm did the photo cause? Some readers were genuinely grossed out and wished they hadn’t seen it. I suspect they will soon recover.
One benefit of the photo, however, is beyond question: more people are discussing this issue on our message boards and on Facebook than ever before. That alone is a testament to the Advocate doing the right thing when we published the photo. Our community is better informed about this potential threat to our safety than we had been only two days ago.
Some critics of our decision have proposed a middle ground. Could we have compromised by running a different image of the scene that was less shocking? Let’s take a look at the alternatives; I took two similar photos that weren't published.
Now we see the same story, but with less impact. The blood is still there, but the dog seems smaller, less threatening. It's the visual equivalent of beating around the bush. These photos are less provocative and easier to ignore. But we believe this story is worthy of your attention; otherwise; we wouldn't have published it in the first place.
True, the photograph we ran is shocking. But as the victims of the pit bull attacks discovered, so is life. Publishing it was the right decision.
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