By Jesse Tahirali
Terrell Johnson was 21 when he was shot and killed in 2012. One glance at his photo and you'll know the world is a bit darker without his bright smile. Or maybe that glance will leave you thinking he was asking for violence. Your impression won’t necessarily depend on the kind of person Johnson was; it will depend on which picture of him you happen to see.
The London Free Press followed Johnson's story from his death in the city's downtown to the court verdict a year later. In news articles, descriptions of him were often neutral, betraying little more than his age. But click on one story and you're greeted by a photograph of him smiling widely, wearing a grey T-shirt and glasses. Click on another and you're confronted by a shirtless man wearing a crooked ball cap and pointing at the camera.
Anyone who reads about Johnson will see one of these two images as they learn the details of his death. So how does an editor decide which impression the reader gets?
When it comes to the written word, journalists have policies and guidelines—like those set out by the Toronto Star—to keep editorial and ethical standards high. Rules about covering all sides of a story and avoiding unnecessary references to a person's race or religion help steer a story in the right direction. But when it comes to photographs, these rules don't exist.
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Mike Knoll, the digital/visuals news editor of the London Free Press, and Toronto Star visuals editor Taras Slawnych said that apart from policies against doctoring photos or showing gore, the only real rule is common sense.
As visuals editors for their respective newspapers, the two use their experiences and editorial judgment when choosing a photo rather than following any sort of standard practice. Matching pictures with the mood of the story and keeping people's images consistent with what's been written about them are two things photo editors attempt when choosing visuals. Most of the time it works.
But sometimes experience and common sense can't pick a photo that tells every side of a story.
Putting a picture beside an article is more than just putting a face to a name. That photograph, that single visual, becomes everything we know about the person's attitude, style of dress and demeanour. And while no policies are being broken by publishing a picture, in practice, readers could fuel every prejudice they have with that photo. Check out any newspaper comment section for proof of this.
Photographs say what can't be put into words—but also sometimes what shouldn't be put into words. Common newspaper practice is to describe people through their actions, their dreams and what those close to them have to say. A paragraph describing a victim as "black with a sideways hat" would not fly. But what about a photograph that visually shows the same thing? The pieces of policy that ensure a person's race or religion won't be pointed out unnecessarily take a backseat to the policy of "we need to run a picture" almost every time.
Let's face it, though—we need to run a picture. Though the New York Times 150 years ago could get away with cramming its front page with nothing but six columns of stories, no one wants to climb that wall of text anymore. But in combating visual monotony, modern newspapers needs to use photography in a way that won't force a person to present themselves as one static image, one outfit and one facial expression for the world to judge.
Slawnych said when two contrasting pictures of a person are available, he'll try to publish both online to show the person has more than one side. And since even the dullest of people is not completely one-dimensional, this should be standard practice—when including a picture of a person, news agencies should adopt the policy of always accruing as many photos as it takes to fairly represent that person. This means not just one swiped screen grab from a social media profile, but a collection of images, compiled with the discretion of someone who has spent time researching and writing about a person's life. One quick interview won’t give a complete picture of a person, and neither will one quick picture.
And in the increasingly unlikely circumstance where only limited photographs are available, maybe an editor needs to step in and decide to break that sacred, unwritten rule of always publishing a photo. Maybe a photo isn't always necessary. Maybe, when your only option is a picture of the victim at his least endearing, it just isn't worth it to let readers draw their own conclusions from the limited information they’re given.
In a world where a news story is lucky to have its headline read, the photograph is a powerful, efficient way to deliver information. It’s a story in itself that doesn’t require an enticing lead or juicy gimmick to draw readers. But with little policy governing which particular portraits get published, or if any should be published at all, a photograph could tell an incomplete story. In holding themselves to their own ethical standards, newspapers need to admit that a carelessly chosen photograph is no less serious than a carelessly written page of text.
Jesse Tahirali is a journalism student at Western University in London, Ont., and is currently interning at CBC's London, England, bureau. After graduating, he hopes to work in the field of science journalism.
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