Editor Column: Selecting photos to tell stories without exploiting tragedy
The widely circulated photo grabs you and won't let go.
In it, a confused and blood-splattered woman is trying to hoist herself up from a sea of red. There's a random running shoe and a half-empty Coca-Cola bottle. In the upper left corner, another blast victim is splayed on the ground, her mangled calf in full view.
The photo, shot by TheBoston Globe's John Tlumacki, was among dozens of heartbreaking images of Monday's explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line that Salt Lake Tribune editors reviewed before selecting the photo that appeared Tuesday on our front page.
We didn't choose this Tlumacki photo but other news organizations did, and how at least one newspaper used it created controversy.
The Daily News of New York altered the photo, covering the woman's wound so her pant leg looked like the blast never had torn it away. Copy editor Charles Apple of The Orange County Register first noted the alteration on his blog, and journalists across the country reacted swiftly, criticizing the change.
The Daily News defended its action, according to a Wednesday New York Times story. "The rest of the media should have been as sensitive at The Daily News," a spokesman said in a statement the Times quoted.
No matter how horrific a news photograph, the National Press Photographers Association's code of ethics disavows alteration. The Tribune agrees with and follows that professional standard.
It's easy to understand why an editor would be uncomfortable with Tlumacki's photo. In telling a story as devastating as the one that struck Boston, we always must balance the power of a photo to tell the truth against our goal not to exploit tragedy.
For us, that means we run a particular photo or we don't. We never alter it.
Much discussion went into choosing the photo on Tuesday's front page.
We wanted the primary image to tell the brutal reality of what happened but another theme also emerged Monday: the speed with which strangers reached out to help one another.
"The challenge became to find a photo that showed not only the devastation of the attack, but also the humanity of the response," Tribune director of photography Jeremy Harmon said. "The photo we settled on had all of this. The blood on the sidewalk and the crowds of people in the background speak to the chaos of that moment, while the two men working to save the woman on the ground demonstrate the bravery of those who stepped in to help."
The picture, also shot by the Globe's Tlumacki, ran huge, across the entire width and nearly half the length of the page, much larger than we normally run any photo.
"Pictures like this are powerful and tell stories much faster than words can," Harmon said. "I felt running it the way we did was the best way to show our readers what happened."
The chaos and the destruction but also basic human decency. Even writers who work hard to choose perfect words to tell a story of this enormity know the right photo speaks volumes.
As the story develops, we'll continue to talk and debate which photos and words do it justice.
Lisa Carricaburu is a managing editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @lcarricaburu.