Last Saturday night, with deadline approaching and editors building the next day’s front page, we had a decision to make.
An Ohio man, part of the white nationalist group protesting the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, had driven his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 people.
Inside our newsroom, the editors working that night knew the protest and violent actions of driver James Alex Fields Jr. were worthy of the front page. But we wrestled over the photograph.
A photographer at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville (full disclosure: they, like us, are part of the BH Media Group newspaper chain) had captured the moment of impact between Fields’ Dodge Charger and the crowd.
It was a compelling picture, mesmerizing and horrifying. As the car plowed into the mass of human bodies, protesters were sent flying, some literally knocked out of their shoes, their bodies contorted, their faces a mask of shock.
To the right, a young woman appears to be scrambling for a small safe space under a truck.
Was she the woman who authorities said had died? We didn’t know.
For the next hour, there were conversations among editors in the newsroom and at home discussing the merits of running the photograph.
Finally, we agreed not to run it. The image of bodies twisted by a speeding car and the possibility the photograph captured someone’s dying moments, was too graphic to display on our front page.
While I don’t know if it was the correct decision, I do believe we arrived at it correctly.
We discussed it, at length.
Long ago, our newsroom was guided by policies, presumably written down in newsroom style books. Blood and death in photographs were taboo.
You didn’t even have to crack a style book to know the rule. Any reporter or photographer could conjure up the rule — perhaps even mimicking the voice of an editor — to keep the blood off the page.
It was a policy fitting our role as a family newspaper, one that arrived at your home daily. Violent images of death and pain were a violation of our promise to keep our product suitable for all ages. If we violated that agreement, we’d hear about it from irate readers.
Our obligation hasn’t changed, even with the spread of news through the internet.
But instead of repeating or following policies blindly, we’ve evolved in how we make decisions.
Rarely do we ever just point to a rule. Instead, most days, you’d find editors here talking, debating, sometimes arguing over editorial choices.
That’s how it should be, even if egos sometimes get bruised.
So last week, after the initial decision not to run the photograph, we revisited the topic during a weekly gathering of senior editors. We argued points and explained why we felt that way. Others who hadn’t weighed in gave their opinions.
Is everyone happy? Maybe, maybe not. But everyone had a chance to be heard.
They also know that decisions, like our weekend call, can be revisited, when enough voices make a compelling argument that the photograph that defines a moment, even if it’s disturbing, should be seen.
W.F. “Buzz” Keough is managing editor.