A TABLOID'S NEW LOW. Last April, the Boston Herald published on its front page an Associated Press photo of the charred body of an American contractor who had been killed in Fallujah. It was an eminently newsworthy picture. Yet so deeply ingrained is the unwritten rule that you don't show photos of dead bodies that the caption said the image had been darkened so the poor man's features would be obscured.
Today, the Herald has a large, page-one color photo of Victoria Snelgrove, bloody and dying on a sidewalk outside Fenway Park, the victim of what appears to be a horrible accidental shooting by police amid the chaos and violence that took place early Thursday morning. (And no, I'm not going to link to it. Thank you for asking.) The headline: "Triumph and Tragedy." I guess the message is that it's too bad the 21-year-old Emerson College student got killed, but hey, baby, the Sox are going to the Series! Indeed, there's a "Go Sox!" teaser right above the picture.
On page four is an even more graphic photo of Snelgrove, eyes closed, her face covered with blood, as another woman checks her vital signs. At least it's in black-and-white.
What is going on here? I'm a believer in using graphic photos; I think it's safe to say that I'd go farther than a lot of people. But this doesn't add to our understanding of what happened in any way. We already know what happened: Torie Snelgrove was shot in the eye by a marble-sized projectile containing pepper spray. It happened at a moment when police officers no doubt had legitimate fears that the situation was about to spin completely out of control, as the Herald's Dave Wedge describes in pretty compelling language.
This was a terrible accident; as Kevin Cullen and Heather Allen report in today's Boston Globe, if the young woman had been hit in any part of her body other than her eye, she wouldn't have been killed. We learn absolutely nothing from the photos other than the fact that the Herald in this instance has lost all sense of decency and proportion.
How bad is this? This morning on Dennis & Callahan, on WEEI Radio (AM 850), Gerry Callahan, who writes a column for the Herald and who is not exactly known for his squeamishness or taste, refused to defend the paper when challenged by John Dennis.
The Herald has posted numerous reactions from its readers. "Outraged," "disgraceful," "shocked and appalled," "extremely troubled," "disgusted," "horrified," "thoughtless," "gratuitious and offensive," "sensationalism," and "despicable" are just some of the words and phrases that are used.
I am well aware of counterarguments in favor of running graphic photos, even of death. Years ago the Boston Herald American took an enormous amount of criticism for a Stanley Forman photo of a woman and her goddaughter plunging from a faulty fire escape; the adult died, the child survived. Forman's picture wound up winning a Pulitzer, and it played a role in improving the safety of such fire escapes. Photos of the bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, and of a streetside execution in Vietnam, drew similar criticism, but those were obviously newsworthy.
For the past couple of years, media folks have been debating whether and how much to depict of the beheadings and other executions carried out by terrorists - a debate that the Phoenix has found itself right in the middle of. Serious people can differ, but on this they would agree: there's an inherent newsworthiness to the evil acts of people with whom we are at war that is entirely lacking from the photos of a dying Victoria Snelgrove.
I'm predicting an apology by Herald publisher Pat Purcell - but even if I'm right, that's not good enough. For the past year-and-a-half, his once-respectable tabloid has been getting racier and more offensive by the week. There are times when I think it's settling down - and then something like this happens. The paper's got some damn good reporters and photographers (the photos of Snelgrove were not taken by a Herald photog). But, under editorial director Ken Chandler, the paper has shown absolutely no controls to prevent itself from stumbling into situations like this. An apology will be meaningless unless this comes with some sort of real assurance that this won't happen again.
Meanwhile, Media Log anxiously awaits Joe Fitzgerald's take on this horrendous breakdown of any sense of journalistic ethics.
(Note: This item has been updated.)