Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » Why publish a disturbing image?


We discussed the graphic nature of Saturday's front-page photo at length before publication and decided it told an important story.

The image showed the reality that law enforcement shot three dogs this week. We did not publish the photo to take a side on pit bulls or to question the police. We did not publish the photo to "sell papers."

Quite the opposite, we knew some readers would be offended and would not buy the paper in protest. Even so, we thought people should see what is happening on our streets. The news value of the photo carried the decision.

We appreciate your comments about the photograph and will further discuss the issue during our next newspaper ethics board meeting. If you would like to address the board, please contact me to arrange the conversation.

National photojournalism expert Kenny Irby offers these three tests when considering whether to publish a disturbing image:

-- Maximize truth-telling: By this, he means, does the photo tell an important story? What is the news value?

We decided this image told the story even more powerfully than the 887-word story that accompanied it.

-- Act independently: Make the decision regardless of outside pressures.

We knew people for and against pit bulls would interpret the photo in their own way. However, we didn't base our decision on this national debate.

-- Minimize harm: Keep in mind people will be affected by what they see.

Although we were concerned about the graphic nature of the photo, we also noted anyone walking or driving the streets of Victoria would see animal carcasses. The 12-year-old boy, quoted in the caption as saying he liked the friendly dog, provided further evidence of this in the picture.

At the same time, Irby notes, editors must consider community standards. We live in a conservative community, but one that accepts the publication of deer hunting photos. We're an agricultural community that accepts death as a part of life.

We also are a big-hearted community. We support the Dorothy O'Connor Pet Adoption Center, Adopt-A-Pet and other organizations working hard to improve the lives of our best friends.

As journalists, we never know what difference our words or photos might make. Most of us get into the profession to make a difference, but we are trained to do that through fair and insightful reporting, not through advocacy. We try to leave the opinions for the editorial page.

Personally, I hope the photo compels the community to do more about the problem of irresponsible pet ownership. We have an epidemic of stray animals roaming our streets and neighborhoods. Loose dogs are bound to attack someone or, more likely, die of starvation, disease or crushed under the wheel of a car.

This problem is all around us every day, yet we look the other way. Photo/video editor Todd Krainin's image Saturday compelled us to stop, look and think. How will we act upon these emotions?

For further reading about photojournalism, please see:

-- Page 2 and pages 8-13 of "Media Reasoning: Cases and Moral Reasoning" by Clifford Christians

-- National Press Photographers Association code of ethics

-- Associated Press Managing Editors' survey on photos and news judgment

-- American Journalism Review article titled "Too Graphic?"

For further reading about pit bulls, please go here:

-- Pit bull Q&A by

-- An advocacy website called Defend Pit Bulls.

-- Dog Breed Info Center's entry on American pit bull terrier.

-- Happy Pit Bull entry on myths and facts.