Friday, October 22, 2004

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.)


Sterling said...

I disagree.

I think the photo added alot to my understanding of how awful this death was and how unnecessary it was. The photo brings you right into the middle of the crowd just moments after the tragedy occurred, and you are there, with her friend, suffering. This photo does what words cannot do.

DavidEhrenstein said...

We love reading about death as an abstraction, but we somehow can't seem to bear the actual fact of dying this picture conveys. We should have more of them. Where are the pictures of the Iraqi peasants we mercilessly slaughtered suring "Shock and Awe"? Put them up on the front page! Put up the pictures of our dead and wounded soldiers! We paid for it -- we should see every bloody bit of it!

Anonymous said...

I say it's probably the most newsworty photograph of the year for a Boston newspaper: A student killed by cops during a disturbance after a Red Sox game. It is a dramatic picture of a tragic incident.

Having witnessed 12 months of increasingly violent postgame celebrations, I suggest the city simply seals off the area around Fenway Park (Lansdowne, Yawkey, Brookline Ave.) after the seventh inning of any world series game. Let people leave but not enter the area.

I strongly doubt that the ratio of celebrators to - disturbance mongers is 99-1, as our freakishly inept police chief has suggested. I think it's more accurate to say that maybe a third (at best) show up to actually celebrate, while another 60% are there to see what crazy things the remaining few percent will do. The onlookers are very much part of the problem. The live and recorded news shots from the area are part of the problem (didn't we learn that lesson during the Rodney King riots? I guess not).

Anonymous said...

didn't you see the Globe used the photo too, but inside?

Anonymous said...

At the risk of being redundant, the picture adds everything to the story. Death at the hands of riot police can sound pretty excusable like when you dismiss the death in two sentences: "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 DaveWedge describes in pretty compelling language."

I think there needs to be a discussion that this death shouldn't be chalked up as just part of the cost of doing police business. Hopefully the photo controversy will keep this serious issue alive instead of just bringing out the journalism ethics police.

Anonymous said...

Mark me down for ratcheting up police presence (and training) for this type of venue. After Seattle (WTO riots), they engaged in soul-searching. Wringing our hands about how society has changed will not bring back Ms. Snelgrove. In the real world, we shouldn't allow 80,000(?) people in Kenmore Square if we can't control whatever percentage are a problem. No control, no crowd. Unless and until they plan better, disburse all crowds. Who but Tom Menino could parlay a Red Sox World Series into Kent State?

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I agree with Dan on this one. Depictions of such gruesome phenomena should not be used in instances such as this.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree that the pictures aren't newsworthy. Here we had an event that was easily predictable: folks rioting after a huge Red Sox win. It happened after the Super Bowl. It happened after last year's ALCS loss. And another person dies. The city's plan this year was to use the plan drafted for DNC security, a plan intended to deal with terrorists and anarchists. This time to deal with celebrating college students.

Contrast that with other New England cities that actually spent months working with their communities to prevent the violence that they also experienced. Now, Boston is a unique beast, but a place like Durham, N.H., saw a dramatic reduction in the number of people arrested because of outreach and education before the event, both for the community and the police. In Boston, Menino is reactive, not proactive, stupidly suggesting to ban liquor sales and TV and newspaper cameras in area bars.

Now, I'm not saying the police are to blame for this particular situation. They obviously killed this girl, but circumstances can make their actions more (or less) understandable. The point is that this image can be newsworthy for a variety of reasons. It can warn potential rioters of what happens when it gets ugly. It brings attention to what the police did, forcing the most honest inquiry possible. The question remains whether it made editorial sense to run it like that, especially as a matter of taste and respect for the dead. But it still has news value before the other newspaper judgments are made.

My mother, by the way, sent me that Kent State image today. The story is big in her home of Lubbock, Texas, too, and that photo was the first thing she thought of.

Anonymous said...

This comment is to correct the term that is being tossed around here. The weapons are actually "less-than-leathal" weapons. These particular ones are the same as paintball guns that fire a round ball, similar to a paintball, that contain pepper powder. They are a weapon none the less and the police are trained to recognizes this fact. Pepper spray is a completely different less that lethal weapon. Pepper spray itself is not lethal. The only examples of any deaths from it are contributed to other factors such as drugs, fight related aggrevations, etc. From what I have heard, read and seen, this seems to be an accident. Of couse the police could have used beanbag rounds fired from a shot gun, or tear gas grenades, or the could use their batons. Of all the options available to the police this is one that is relativly safe. To Simply say that it was traing, or overzelous police or whatever would be simply trying to blame someone for an accident.

Anonymous said...


Vincentine Vermeille said...

First I'd like to say that my previous "go, yellow journalism!" comment about the Herald was certainly not intended as a comment on this issue. It was a knee-jerk reaction to Anonymous's wish for "a one paper town." I've hated the graphic-picture trend since January 23, 1987, the day I opened my front door and, seeing the Philadelphia Inquirer lying face-down on the doormat, carried it carefully into the kitchen without turning it over, because I knew there was a picture of R. Budd Dwyer committing suicide on the other side. Most recently, I had to lunge for the radio on Friday to avoid hearing an audio clip of Margaret Hassan's videotape for the second time. Why did NPR broadcast that? These "news" pieces are violating for the victims and their families, degrading for the listener, and emotionally deadening for the whole country.