Journalistic Judgment Call

Journalism is the only profession with its own amendment, the First. It is the bedrock of democracy.

But it is not a science – rocket or otherwise. The practice is rife with judgment calls. Among them: How do you handle controversial photos?

You know the one: that gut-wrenching shot of the dying American soldier in Fallujah being unsuccessfully ministered to on a gurney. It had to have been the subject of countless editorial discussions – some doubtlessly heated — across the expanse of American newspapers. That obviously included this market.

A couple of points.

First, photos are more than layout elements. Chosen well, they graphically show what a thousand words of copy can only describe in the abstract. Chosen well, they help convey the truth.

This is what the photo of the dying soldier did, and that’s why it ran on a lot of front pages, including that of the Tribune.

But here’s the other side.

While journalists continuously work to rein in – or just limit – their subjectivity, they shouldn’t be checking their empathy at the newsroom door. The news isn’t reported – and consumed – in a vacuum. At its core, news is people. Subjects, suspects, victims –and readership: the nation, the region, the community.

What works for a national magazine might be less appropriate for a daily newspaper that is a community staple. Demographics also matter in a democracy. What works on the jump might be more appropriate than what is displayed across three columns on page one.

In this case, maximum impact was the wrong call for the right reason.

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