2005-03-04 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

The conventional wisdom says, “A picture is worth 1,000 words.”

Those who work in print journalism know that the conventional wisdom is not always true.

There are just some pictures that a newspaper cannot reasonably use to save those 1,000 words.

Whether a picture is to be used or not, especially on the front page is, of course, the providence of the managing editor and it is a task that this managing editor does not take lightly. What you should understand is that every editor on every newspaper has the same decisions to make each week as the editor of The Wave.

The day after the most destructive tsunami in history hit East Asia, New York Times editors sat down for their “front page budget meeting.” That means they met to decide what would go on the front page, what would go inside and what would be “spiked,” or discarded.

The paper’s picture editors had already selected a few favorites from the more than 900 images its photographers had taken on scene.

The picture that ran the next day stretched across all five columns of the paper and took up almost half of the page. It showed a mother crouched on the ground next to the bodies of some young children. It was stark and it was graphic.

Many of the paper’s readers and not a small amount of its staff argued that the picture should not have been run as it was. They said that it was exploitive, that it was unduly graphic, that because of its size and placement, it was literally forced in the paper’s readers whether they wanted to see it or not.

The public editor for the Times, Daniel Okrent said in a column later on that he asked the managing editor why she chose that particular picture.

“[The picture] seemed to perfectly convey the news: the sheer enormity of the disaster.”

Okrent added, “Stories may whisper with nuance and headlines declaim in the summary, but pictures seize the microphone, and if they’re good, they don’t let go. In most cases, a story gets a single picture; major stories may get more, but usually only one on the front page itself – and that becomes the picture that stands for the event.

Okrent chose as the headline for his column, “No picture tells the truth. The best to better than that.” I think that is an apropos headline, and it summarizes how I make my own decision on what pictures The Wave will or will not use.

In the February 11 issue of The Wave, we ran a picture on the front page of the woman who had found the body of a dead and decaying young boy on a Rockaway beach.

The picture we ran showed the woman two days after her grisly find, standing behind a growing memorial to the unidentified youth.

In addition, inside the paper we ran a picture of the Disney character blanket the body had been wrapped in. We did that in hopes of assisting the police in identifying the boy.

We had a close-up picture of the decaying body. I made the decision not to use the picture because I believed and continue to believe that it was not necessary for the story.

I did not always go for the politically correct choice.

When I was much younger and working as a freelancer for this paper, I heard on my scanner that a teenage young man had hung himself in an empty lot in Bayswater. As luck had it, I lived in the area and was right around the corner. I got to the call before the police and EMS ambulance and I took a series of pictures of the body hanging from the tree.

The Wave ran the picture on the front page and gave me credit for the picture.

Needless to say, I took a lot of flack for the next few weeks from the community, the boy’s family and from many in the Far Rockaway school in which I then worked.

They were right. The picture was exploitive and the family did not need to see their son hanging from a tree. I would not use that picture now.

On the other hand, I got lots of flack for running a picture last year of a car that had been involved in a car accident on Beach Channel Drive in which the driver was killed.

I used the picture (the man’s body was not in the car) because the car had reportedly been speeding and I believed that the ripped-up car would be an object lesson about driving to fast.

I would use that picture again.

There are other examples from last year’s editions of The Wave.

In May, a man was stabbed and lay bleeding on the street. In that case, we followed the old newspaper axiom, “If it bleeds, it leads” and used the picture because the man did not die.

In June we did a story about a car crash that injured six teenagers coming home from a high school prom. The mangled car told the story.

In August we used the picture of first responders rushing a boy, who had fallen into the bay, to the hospital. Again, the picture was compelling and told the story without using the picture of the person who had died.

In November, a 12-year-old girl was killed nearby our office. We had a picture of her body, but used a picture of her family talking to rescue workers instead.

There are many more examples of pictures that we did and did not use.

Just last week, a neighboring newspaper, The Forum, used a large picture of a 19-year-old man who had been shot and killed in Woodhaven. We did not cover that story, but we would not have used the picture of the dead youth on the street. That is just Wave policy, at least as long as I am the managing editor. Another editor might have gone the other way. Neither of us would have been wrong, just different from each other, although there are many who think in absolutes.

“What public good is accomplished by the desire to document this tragic event on the front page? What lesson do we learn by indulging in our worst voyeuristic tendencies,” one reader wrote to Okrent. “You are guilty of exploiting the worst in us in the name of news.”

“While a picture may be worth a thousand words, a good writer or editor could find those words and give someone the choice of reading them or not – a choice that an above-the-fold picture does not offer,” wrote another.

Photos of specifically identifiable dead people do not belong in the New York Times, let alone in color and on the front page,” wrote a third. “Any number of other photographs could have conveyed the horror of the tsunami while maintaining respect for the dead.”

The beat goes on. Stories will continue to happen and pictures will continue to illustrate those stories. A picture that “tells the story” is valuable to an editor.

There is a line, however, and I hope never again to cross that line.

By the way, would I have used the New York Times picture that touched off the argument above.

Of course. It was the quintessential picture that was indeed worth a thousand words.

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