Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sensational photo unnecessary

In peace journalism, we’re always asking ourselves if the story can be told in a less-inflammatory way. I was left wondering this week if this notion ever entered the minds of the editors of the Los Angeles Times.

In case you missed it, last week brought the latest in a seemingly endless stream of offensive pictures of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. This time, the photos showed service people mugging it up with dismembered “enemy” corpses and body parts. It’s noteworthy, and perhaps discouraging, that there was a discussion about the grizzly photos at the Poynter website. Unfortunately, the discussion centered only on the placement of a photo of soldiers with dismembered legs on the LA Times website (top, dominant) vs. the printed version (smaller photo but still above the fold).

This discussion, it seems to me, missed the point, which is not placement of the photo, but instead the desirability of using the picture in the first place. As one of my Park University students astutely asked, could the story have been told without the photo? In what way did the photo add to the reader’s understanding of the story? As peace journalists, we always consider the consequences of the choices we make as journalists. Using sensational photos and stories in the past has led to riots in Afghanistan which have literally led to the loss of lives, both Afghan and American. The same could have happened in this instance, although fortunately it has not (thus far). I believe a description of the photo would have been sufficient to gain an understanding of what happened.

By using the photo, the Los Angeles Times chose sensationalism over prudence. It’s fortunate that their decision did not cost lives.

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