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Penn State Live
|Gene Foreman - March 2009|
Gene Foreman March 2009 on Taste and Sensitivity
Discussion about Pennsylvania State Treasurer Budd Dwyer’s very public suicide on January 22, 1987 during a televised press conference held in Harrisburg, PA.
Foreman: …including video, thought that it would be vindicated; trying to vindicate himself in saying goodbye. He did that except as we know now, he …. and opened a manila envelope and drew out a pistol, waved people back who were rising, trying to; they were yelling Budd, stop! Don’t! He then shot himself; put the gun in his mouth, and of course he was killed instantly. All of this was captured on video and on still pictures and sold to television and radio stations around the state as well as around the country. We focused our case study on the stations and newspapers in Pennsylvania and what decisions they made. Only one station continued to use the unedited tape from beginning to end. I think two other stations had used parts of it, but nearly everybody else independently decided to stop it before the shot was fired. One station out of twenty in Pennsylvania that Penn State researchers checked at the time did not use any video at all.
In newspapers, which is where I was concerned; we had a variety of stills to work from. The most used, I think, was a picture of him with the pistol in his right hand, left hand waving people back. I call that the stand back picture and we used that at the Inquirer. We also used a picture of him with the gun in his mouth, and it was on the front and inside page. Inside, we showed a picture of his body slumped on the floor. This was black and white, so there wasn’t gore. It was taken from a distance. That was not a particularly gory picture. So those are the three we used. There were a few others, including the moment of impact, where his head seems to explode. We never even considered using that. Our photo editors felt strongly that being that this is essentially a local story, and an extraordinary suicide, which generally is not a big news story, that we should use two pictures on the front; the stand back picture and the pistol in the mouth and inside, the body slumped. I do, in retrospect, regret that we used the picture of the gun in the mouth.
A lot of people told us the next day that when it’s on the front page of the paper, they can’t sensor this for their children. They probably were offended by the picture too, but most people were speaking about, our kids see that, and we don’t want them to see it. The same sort of reaction came to the station that showed the unexpurgated tape and the effect on children seeing it. So these were some of the things we were concerned about. Even though there was a snowstorm at the time, and a lot of papers didn’t get delivered promptly, we still got five hundred phone calls the next day, which was an unusual number. My opinion is that whether you agree with them or not, when the switchboard lights up you need to think about what you did and if you haven’t already, try to determine whether maybe that was the right course. A couple of people in our newsroom had expressed concern about the gun in the mouth, but I think our feeling at the time was that this was our (former) State Senator; it was in public; it’s a local story; it is a major story and we should use it. But I think that I would certainly not use it on the front page, and probably wouldn’t use that picture at all. I think that the virtue of the stand back picture, you get the feeling of impending violence, but without the actual scene itself. I think that sometimes we ought to spare our readers or viewers of the actual scene if we can suggest it in a way that is not itself offensive. That seems to be a better course.
Interviewer: Parents’ concerns about their children seeing the paper come up a lot? How much should we really worry about that issue?
Foreman: About people reacting?
Interviewer: Parents wanting to shield their children from either graphic violence or graphic sex in the newspapers.
Foreman: Well, another case study in the book is about the Spokane mayor and editor Steve Smith of the Spokesman Review, the paper that ran the story about the mayor’s sexual involvement with younger men. People complained to him about that, and we said we don’t edit the paper for children. We recognize that some children will see it, but I think that we would be really hamstrung in trying to tell the news today if it were written exclusively as if it were only going to be read by children. So we’re probably a PG on stories like that rather than G, but we do have to pull our punches, I think, the question is that you drive away the readers if you are too explicit, and we have to constantly balance our responsibility to our audience; not upsetting them, not offending them, or driving them away, vs. our responsibility of telling the news about what actually happened. So I think that what I advocate teaching is two things. One is learn to recognize what is likely to offend. So I try in writing the book to give the students the benefit of my experience; things that I learned from trial and error. Frankly, I didn’t realize how incendiary the picture of the gun in the mouth would be. I knew that some people would be bothered by it, but the degree surprised me. The second thing of course, would be now that you know, or you’re pretty sure it’s going to offend somebody, are we justified in running it or is there another way to tell the story? Sometimes the answer is we’re going to offend them, but we think It’s important. I think those are things that are carefully thought out in advance so that you anticipate the reaction and you feel confident that you are still doing the right thing.
Interviewer: Placement seems to be a big issue when it comes to these kinds of photos, because I guess that a lot of parents feel like kids aren’t likely to go paging through the paper, but they will see what’s on the front page. I know it may be worthwhile talking about the American soldier who was dragged through the streets in Mogadishu—I remember reading that when that photo moved across the wires that editors were having a meeting at the time and they were quickly polled about how they would handle it. I think about one-third said front page in color. One-third said black and white inside, and one third said they wouldn’t use it at all. I always think about that. That sort of epitomizes what is so difficult about making ethical decisions is to have such a perfect split about how to handle a piece of news. If we could talk about the background of that case and how you think that one should be handled.
Foreman: Yes, I’m with the group that thinks it should be run. There was a major local story at the time that dominated our front page. We did run it inside, and I think that on a normal day we probably would have run it somewhere on the front. That was a story that A, we knew it would offend; B, we thought it was extremely important.
Interviewer: Maybe for the tape, if you could describe the background.
Foreman: Yes, we were trying to help the people of Somalia through a drought and famine; sending supplies in there. The country had no functioning government and there was a constant battle between the warlords. In this context, our soldiers got caught up in a firefight and a Blackhawk helicopter was shot down and one of the soldiers in the helicopter was killed in the ensuing gun fight. His body was dragged through the street with people jeering in Mogadishu. Its influence, I think, the picture and of course the event itself, President Clinton decided that we would pull our troops out and that while we wanted to help in distributing the food, we also didn’t want our soldiers killed. There was tremendous hostility to our being there among certain groups. So the fact that it was later shown to have influenced policy only reinforces our belief that we did the right thing in running the picture. Sometimes people have to see things that are troubling to them in order for us to tell them here’s what’s going on. It’s a fine line and I think in the Dwyer case, we went over that line by retrospective. In the Mogadishu case I don’t think we did.
Interviewer: What about the counter argument though that a photo like that is so inflammatory in a way, that as soon as people see it, maybe they stop looking at the bigger policy issue and just say no we don’t want that to happen to any of our soldiers. Let’s get them all out of there. So it’s kind of like if you show a photo of a plane crash, it obscures the fact that most planes land safely. You know what I mean? You’re seeing the very worst of it, and that’s what creates this deep impression in people’s minds. So it’s hard for them to retain a more nuanced, balanced, or complex view.
Foreman: Well, I think that’s a judgment that people had to make. We’re giving them the information. I don’t think that we should shy from running that picture because people might be very, very angry about that and maybe Clinton should have stayed in Somalia; I don’t know. The fact is that there was a lot of public pressure to get out. Just as you said, that influenced policy. But I don’t think that’s manipulative on our part. If we say well we’re going to pull our punches because it may be a policy that we may not approve of. I think that we have to be neutral on that and say that we give them the information and let people decide hopefully what they want to do.
Interviewer: So while we’re on this subject, I was also thinking about the difference between local upsetting photographs and ones from far away. One instance in particular that epitomizes this issue was when the Centre Daily Times ran an accident photo several years ago. A Penn State student was crossing Garner Street and Beaver Avenue and she got hit by a bus. The photo was not graphic at all. You could just see her legs and that was about it. The day before, they ran a really bloody photo from a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. There was no uproar. The switchboard did not light up about the suicide bombing photo, and it did light up about the Penn State student photo. So what does that tell us about how people respond to the newspaper and in terms of making decisions about those kinds of photos?
Foreman: Yeah, I remember that photograph with the schoolbus and you could see rescue workers working over what presumably was the student’s body. I showed it to my ethics classes at Penn State as an example of how even though the picture was not particularly gory, it’s still offensive because it’s local. The point you made is absolutely true. Sherman Williams, the photo editor of the Milwaukie Journal Sentinel, speaks to that in my book about how local does make a difference. Often people, readers will know the person involved and will react personally to that. I think that the point you made about there being a very gory picture from Jerusalem attracted almost no reaction and then there’s a local picture, not gory, but symbolic. You can tell a tragedy occurred and it did attract a lot. So this is just one of many factors I think that journalists have to consider in making their decisions. It goes in the first part of that two step decision- making process as to what degree do you think people will be offended. Then you go on to the other question; do they really need to see this from a news point of view. My view on the bus thing anticipated the kind of reaction you’d get. There wasn’t a whole lot of argument for using that picture. It was simply not a remarkable picture under any circumstances.
Interviewer: So is there a meaningful distinction to be made also between pictures that have to do with public policy issues and public tragedies vs. a private one? There are things we need to think about and decide when we come to the photo from Somalia as opposed to a car accident. There’s no really public policy issue there. Although I suppose you could always argue, and I know people do make this argument, that every photo of an accident is a reminder for people to be careful. So in that sense, it’s considered as useful.
Foreman: Right; and there’s validity to that. I think it can be overused if you simply want to get a picture in because it’s a remarkable picture. This is not the way decisions ought to be made, but we’re human and if we really want to run this picture because it’s such a spectacular picture. Then we back up and try to justify it. It’s not good decision making. So while it can be argued that it does affect public policy for the better showing how accidents can happen and how they might have been prevented. I can recall the Stanley Forman picture of a fire escape collapse in Boston. It shows the two people; a nineteen-year-old woman and a three or four year old girl that she was babysitting plunging. The woman was killed and the girl fell on top of her. A lot of people, of course, objected to that. I think that the fact that it really showed the danger of fire escapes, that in this case that had not been inspected in a long time, that we need to tighten up laws in Boston, and they did indeed tighten it up and other cities followed suit. So there is validity to that.
I also say, to answer another part of your question, that if something is a private as opposed to a public person; an ordinary person involved in a tragedy, people are going to react very strongly. So local and private versus somewhere else and in public are two distinctive factors that journalists need to learn to factor in when making their determination of whether people will be offended or not. I can recall at the Inquirer we had a dramatic picture of a little girl who had been in a car wreck being extricated by the firefighters. It was a heroic thing, and she was alive, but that night she died. Our night crew was alert to check on her condition and get the fact that she died, but unfortunately they should have reconsidered the photograph at the time. We caught a lot of flak for running that picture because the girl died. If she had lived, I think people would have agreed that it was a great picture, but since she died, in their view, and again something you have to be concerned about is that this changes the situation. So the dramatic picture of the firefighter with the mangled, dead body of a child in Oklahoma City defied all of those rules except that in most cases it was not local; we ran it in Philadelphia. People understood. We got virtually no complaints about running that picture. I do not see myself as a hero in this thing, but the news desk was saying that we’re not going to run this picture and I said we are. This is really a good picture. It encapsulates the entire story right here. You look at the fireman’s face; it was just disgusted or forlorn that this happened and he was not able to do anything. So occasionally there are situations like that. When I asked Sherman Williams at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about that, and he said it was the enormity of the thing that people understood. Now if it was just a single death, they might not have accepted that picture in my opinion.
Interviewer: So what about this? I got a complaint one year after Oklahoma City when we ran the same photo on the one year anniversary. People said; the person who called - an interesting point – she said I understand why it was important and newsworthy right when it happened, but why do we need to see it again a year later? Do you have a response to that?
Foreman: Yes, I think that it ought to be a part of our process to think about what we do on anniversaries. If it’s a local event, the family is still here, and we have to consider the effect on that family, saying this notorious automobile accident in which say five kids were killed after their senior prom, there are going to be five families that are going to be seared once again by this. I think that we have to be very careful on anniversary pictures and stories. You know I can recall the planes, the second plane crashing into the tower on 9/11. Did they have to show it over and over that day? I mean surely not everybody would have seen it live, but I think that they really learned a lot from that, the television networks. You don’t show something like that over and over and over.
Interviewer: Well, speaking of 9/11, if you had been making decisions in the newsroom about the photos of people jumping out of the windows at the World Trade Center. How would you have handled those, because one thing I remember is first those did run on inside pages and pretty much only ran once and not again? The European papers ran those photos much more liberally than the American papers did. Again it’s this issue of distance.
Foreman: Distance and culture probably, but I don’t want to presume to be an expert on that. But they were reading their customers differently than maybe we read ours. I would have run that picture inside of the New York Times and it is in my book in Chapter 18 or 19 about would you run this picture, and I remember Tom Brokaw saying afterwards we should have covered that aspect of it. And indeed they should have. This is an aspect, as horrific as it is, people making a choice to die by jumping rather than by burning. It simply told a story that was horrific from the beginning. There’s no way to spare the people what happened that day. But I don’t think it needed to be on the front page because there were other images that were more descriptive of the whole event. But somewhere that’s an aspect of the story that had to be covered.
Interviewer: How much should we worry about the reactions of specific families to a tragic piece of news when we’re trying to communicate with this large mass audience? I think of the recent controversy over the photo of the soldier killed in Iraq where the AP went to the family to tell them that they were going to run this photo and the family asked them not to and they went ahead and ran it any way. Then there’s this debate about why this photo was important. What do you think about that issue?
Foreman: Well, I think that sometimes, not in a callous way, but we do disregard what the family said. Back up and say you were a local paper the size of the Centre Daily Times and on the one year anniversary you want to show the car wreck that killed five local young people, then I think you do worry about the families a lot more than you would in this particular case where they were trying to let the family know that we’re going to run the picture. In the process they had gotten the request please don’t run it, and they ultimately decide to run it any way. I can see where they could make that decision, and I can see where it would be unpopular, but I think that sometimes that happens.
Interviewer: Well, maybe we should leave the world of a photo-journalism discussion. The Budd Dwyer case also calls to mind changing standards when it comes to covering suicides. In your experience, how has coverage of suicides changed over the decade that you’ve been involved and where do you think we are now?
Foreman: I think that suicide is a very difficult question, and it’s on several levels. I think that I can flatly say that it’s generally not a big story. It’s tragic, but rarely is it made a big deal over. The Dwyer case, leaving aside the question about that particular picture, certainly met all the requirements for being an exception to the rules. It was public; it involved a public official; one who had been convicted; everything said that this is outside the normal restraint about suicide. So unless the person is extraordinarily important that he’s passing from this earth and needs to be noted for its news value, and unless the suicide is public, or both, generally suicide is not a story, much at all. So the question that comes up is that I don’t think you should glamorize the suicide. A person stands on a building for an hour and draws a crowd and then jumps. I think we have to be very subdued about it; we don’t want to have copycats. There’s a good report out by experts on how the media can help and they are very concerned if we make the committing of suicide appear to be glamorous or a reaction to a single bad event. As an example they use, boy 10 killed himself over bad grades. Their point is that nearly everybody who commits suicide has a mental illness that is either undiagnosed or untreated or both. They also don’t think we should run a lot of details about how a suicide took place. I have no trouble accepting the restraint on suicide. There’s one that I continue to debate among myself and talking with other journalists about it and that is in running a routine obituary that happens to be a suicide, do you put the cause of death in there? A lot of papers don’t and I worry about that because a lot of people know the person shot himself and they may figure the paper suppresses other news as well. A group of community newspapers in New England years ago decided they would say cause of death: suicide. What they found in hearing the wishes of the family, the medical examiner would not include the cause of death. So, they were foiled by the authorities, and nobody seemed to appreciate what they were trying to do, which is to simply be honest. They give other causes of death so they should give this one as well. There is no answer to that that I’ve found because I know from personal experience how traumatizing it is for a person in the family to have it in the paper even though friends already know. Having in the paper that their son or daughter committed suicide makes a big difference.
Foreman: The experts that I consulted in writing my book feel that we are right about the phenomenon of suicide; how to recognize warning signs, and what to do if you think someone close to you is suicidal—that we ought to write about the problem rather than about specific individuals. Again this causes us to kind of shift gears; it’s not the usual way we think we focus on an event, but I think there’s a lot of merit up to that.
Interviewer: So what about sex crimes? I know Michael Gartner famously argues that we should break with the tradition of withholding names of victims of sex crimes and Gena Overholser had made that argument as well. How do you feel about that?
Foreman: Well, Gena’s paper, the Des Moines Register Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for telling its story about a woman who had been raped, but she gave her permission. It wouldn’t have been written if she hadn’t have given her permission. I think that there are exceptions that most of us would make if the person involved, the victim, wants to go public. We would not be bothered by reporting it. We’re not going to deny. Now, if the victim is under age and the parents are not in agreement, and that comes up in a case study in the book, I think you’d have to think twice about that. I think they’re not making the decision about themselves, but about another party. They may not be aware of the affects of publicity that we in the business might be aware of. So I think that generally speaking, though, I’m on the side, and say so in my textbook that while I see merit in the argument to the contrary, I think that I would continue not to routinely run victims of sex crimes because of the stigma and because I think as a matter of public policy to the extent that a lot of us don’t think about is that it would only cause more rapes to not be reported. I think that’s intuitive. You can figure that out for yourself. You don’t need empirical evidence. But I certainly think we have an obligation to those accused of rape to follow their cases through and be very clear that if they’re acquitted to make sure that gets prominently reported as well. Again, it is not a perfect world, and the sex crime identification is one that has no perfect answer.