Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Gazette weekly column, “On Topic,” from 08-31-14
Thirteen years ago, we worked our way through the same contentious debate in newsrooms of newspapers, magazines, TV stations and websites across this business of journalism.
On Sept. 11, 2001, and on the days that followed — even though we, too, wanted to share our outrage and declare sides, we wanted to hunt down every scrap of information, we wanted to debate the bigger picture of global consequences — news editors, art directors and photo chiefs talked about how to best present what we were learning.
We argued a lot about one photo in particular. You’ll remember it: a man plummeting from the World Trade Center’s north tower.
What made this dramatic Associated Press image in particular a difficult piece in the puzzle of what to pass along to readers was that the man had one knee bent. As if he were out for a stroll rather than tumbling through the air, cream-colored jacket billowing.
Some editors argued that our duty was to show what had occurred, to hold back little. And besides, one daily newspaper editor said to me at the time, our readers already had seen this very picture, if not on television but surely online.
Other editors dissented. That specific image crossed the line, and we could tell the story of the day’s tragedy and its unfolding narrative without such a heartrending picture, they said.
Some media outlets ran the shot, some print publications pushed it to an inside page, while some skipped it entirely. Today, the picture still turns up near the top of Internet searches of 9/11 images, and has come to be known as “The Falling Man.”
These same points were debated two weeks ago with the release of a photo and video of freelance journalist James Foley, who was beheaded somewhere in the faraway Middle East by thugs who want to be called the Islamic State.
The Washington Post’s Abby Phillip took two New York City tabloids to task for running the still photo of Foley, knife held to his throat — the New York Post carried it on its front page. (The Gazette decided not to publish that photo.)
“There’s no definitive book on journalistic ethics that instructs the media what to do at moments like this,” she wrote last week. “Those decisions are often made on a case-by-case basis in American newsrooms.”
Phillip pointed out that none of the larger American newspapers published that particular photo. It is, however, all over the Internet. Twitter officials noted the image as well as the video of the gruesome beheading itself carry warnings.
Phillip also asked the questions that most editors contemplate in regard to which words and images to present to readers whenever there are tragic stories, on a national scale or in our community: What do you, the readers and viewers, really want to know, what do you need to know, to understand what’s happened?
Does seeing a shocking image or reading or hearing about graphic details help or hurt?
But Alain de Botton gives the impression in much of his new book, “The News: A User’s Manual,” that editors don’t clutter their minds a great deal with such troublesome dilemmas.
In fact, de Botton, a philosopher and TV commentator, states that the news media’s primary goal is to scare you, as he contends in a section titled “Fear and Anger.”
In discussing how, after all, floods eventually recede and many illnesses sooner or later will be cured or at least contained, the author notes, “But we shouldn’t be surprised if this kind of stoicism is of no interest whatsoever to the news, for it has sound commercial incentives for overemphasizing our vulnerability. Naturally the news badly needs its audiences to feel agitated, frightened and bothered a lot of the time … .”
To which I say, well, no.
Our responsibility as news-gatherers is to find out what’s happening, at home and on distant shores, and then communicate to you the most significant chunks of information we can fit into our newspaper or broadcast — and by “significant” I mean vital or interesting or entertaining, depending on the context.
De Botton does make a truly valid argument that news coverage should put more effort into conveying the meaning of events — to explain the “why” of stories and relate how complicated some of these issues truly are, not simply highlight the flyover view.
The news needs to show that tragic occurrences in particular belong to “a coherent narrative cycle,” he urges.
He might be overreaching, however, when he proposes that news reports “should gather all its varied tales of horror under the unified heading of ‘Tragedy’ and then narrate them in such a way that we can more easily recognize our own smoldering tendencies … .” If I understand his recommendation correctly, that would make for phenomenally long and unremittingly sad stories.
“The noblest promise of news is that it will be able to alleviate ignorance, overcome prejudice and raise the intelligence of individuals and nations,” he writes.
And to that I say, ahem.
I can’t speak for every editor in every medium of journalism. But for many of us, that is what we try to achieve.
Some days we succeed more than on others.