My twin daughters are taking a journalism class at Chatfield High School, and yesterday, their teacher talked about a series of scenarios that touched on ethics. In one example, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News each captured photographs of grieving parents standing by a body bag containing their child, who'd just drowned. But while the Rocky ran the image with its article, the Post didn't. Which paper made the right call?
By coincidence, a similar question pertains to today's editions of the Denver dailies. The photo above, which ran big on the front page of the Denver Post, is certainly compelling, and no wonder: It captures the moment when the mother of a robbery suspect learned that her son had been killed in an altercation with an Aurora police officer. However, the story itself wasn't deemed worthy of cover treatment; it appears at the top of the Denver and the West section, inside the issue. Editors at the Rocky felt likewise about the incident, placing the tabloid's piece about it on page five along with their own snapshot of the distraught woman. As for the cover, they chose a seasonal image of a grinning girl who'd just visited a mall Santa skilled at sign language.
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Does either paper deserve a passing grade for its decision?
Like many ethical matters, there's no clear-cut answer -- and the tension between newsworthiness and compassion necessarily comes into play. There's no doubt that a police shooting deserves coverage. But it's equally indisputable that the Post's front-page choice pivots on the visceral reaction of the woman at its center, who now must get through today knowing that what's likely the worst nanosecond of her life is displayed on street corners and news stands throughout the city.
In the final analysis, I feel that the Post's cover is unnecessarily exploitative, especially given the placement of the article itself. But I don't find the use of the photo itself to be over the line, especially if it was put elsewhere in the paper. The image is horrific, sure, but it also humanizes the shooting, making it clear that while the suspect may have done bad things, he was still someone's child -- and his loved ones will miss him terribly, despite his flaws. That's why I would have made the same call the Rocky did with its own photo: Pair it with the article, and run both on an inside page.
Bet my daughters and their journalism classmates would disagree with printing any photos, however. The majority of them applauded the Post for not using the parents-with-body-bag image mentioned above, and excoriated the Rocky for publishing one. That's the problem with journalism ethics. Even making the right choice can feel wrong sometimes. -- Michael Roberts