Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Awesome article from New Brunswick Beacon

There's a really good article in the New Brunswick Beacon - the newspaper for the St. Thomas University's School for Journalism - about the need for graphic photos in Journalism - and they talk about the photo of the dog who froze to death on the end of the chain in Cape Breton, and whether or not it should have been put on the front page of the Cape Breton Post.

It's neat, because the managing editor of the Cape Breton Post said it was an easy decision to run the photo because - "the photo raised awareness of animal cruelty. Without the image, readers might not have understood the extent to which the dog was abused."

I think it's amazing that an Editor of a newspaper would say that - that they'd care enough about animal cruelty to run a photo on the front page of their newspaper - and that's super - that they'd be willing to face the scorn of their readers.

Especially since the NS SPCA then came out and said that it appeared the dog HAD NOT been abused. But really - we all know he was. How else can a dog FREEZE TO DEATH OUTSIDE if he hadn't been left there to die?

Anyway - it's a great article. Here it is -

Pictures in the news: Telling a story with graphic images

By Jody Nabuurs on Mar 17, 2010 and filed under Features, This Week's Edition.

On a chilly February morning, thousands of Cape Bretoners bent down to peel the Saturday newspaper off their icy front steps. Frigid temperatures sent them sprinting back inside for warmth. Very few –maybe none – expected to face the most graphic image they’d ever seen on the front page of their newspaper: a dead dog sprawled out on snowy ground. Its thin frozen corpse was being displayed for the entire island. No blanket or hot cup of cocoa could keep the chills from resurfacing.

“As a dog owner and animal lover, it was a disturbing thing to see first thing in the morning,” said Corrine Brewer.

The following Saturday morning, millions turned on their TVs for Olympic highlights. Without warning, many would witness an Olympian luger hurl from his speeding vehicle and fly into a steel pole.

There's often good reason for running graphic images//Google image
Footage of the man’s death aired on TV stations across the country for several hours.

While graphic images in the media can be disturbing to readers and viewers, many news organizations say there’s often good reason for it.

“And your good reason might be (that) your story can’t be told without it,” said Julie Clow, senior producer at CBC in Fredericton.

“If you need to explain that (a hockey fight) is more brutal than ordinary, so that your viewer doesn’t come back to you and say, ‘People fight on the ice all the time,’ then maybe you do put (the footage) on.”

Fred Jackson, managing editor of the Cape Breton Post, agreed with Clow. He said running the photo of the deceased dog was an easy decision.

The dog was reportedly guarding a woodlot for more than three years. Neighbours complained several times to the SPCA that the owners neglected to feed the dog. The dog’s chain, they said, was often tangled in bushes and around trees, keeping him from his doghouse.

Jackson said neighbours wrote letters to the editor to complain about the dog’s owners and the SPCA’s reluctance to act on their complaints.

“It’s a story behind a story,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the photo raised awareness of animal cruelty. Without the image, readers might not have understood the extent to which the dog was abused.

Cathy Carnahan, part-time journalism instructor at St. Thomas University and former newspaper reporter, photographer and editor, said she has run graphic images, knowing they would upset readers.

She ran a story of a puppy living at a puppy mill.

“The reason I (ran it) was because in this particular case it wasn’t about sensationalism. It’s about showing how horrific … and how painful it must have been for that little dog and why it’s so important for people to spay their cats and dogs and why it’s important to properly care for animals, and this kind of abuse is totally unacceptable,” she said.


A lot to consider

Clow said before CBC decides to run graphic footage, they always consider the implications.

“The question you have to ask yourself is, ‘What good am I doing by putting this on and what bad am I doing by putting this on? Who is going to suffer as a result? Does the viewer need to see this to understand the story?’ That’s the biggest single question you have to ask yourself all the time,” she said.

“You have to think about everything on a case-by-case basis and think about what kind of damage it’s going to do, if any.”

If viewers can understand the story without seeing graphic images, Clow said the images aren’t necessary.

“If the viewer will understand that a brutal hockey fight happened as a result of seeing everything leading up to that fight and then seeing him laying on the ice, which is something we see with some frequency, then that’s all you need to put there.”

In January 2008, seven Bathurst high school students and one teacher were killed when their van collided with a transport truck after a late-night basketball game. Clow said CBC always considers the victims and their families when airing follow-up stories on the crash.

“We question ourselves every time we put a story on about the Bathurst van crash here. We ask ourselves every time we put that footage on, ‘What harm are we doing to the people of Bathurst when they see that wrecked van again and again?’ You have to ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it? Is there something else we can use that will work just as well and won’t cause as much harm?’”

Clow said CBC journalists, editors, and producers consult their guide book regularly when making tough decisions, but she said the decision to air graphic images comes down to good taste.

She said she always considers how a graphic image would affect her personally, and she always considers the impact the footage will have on sensitive groups, such as children.

Clow said proximity is always taken into consideration. An image of a dead New Brunswicker wouldn’t make it to air, but an image of a dead Iraqi might. Viewers would be more sensitive to an image of a dead New Brunswicker than an image of a dead person in a foreign country.

“It is the case that a bombing in Iraq today, I’d put that in my newscast and there might be a dead body in it.”

Before Clow airs graphic footage, she consults her colleagues.

“You have to have that conversation. I put it out there. If I’m feeling any question in the newsroom, the great thing about being in a newsroom is you’re not alone. So you put it out there. It comes to all sorts of different conclusions in the end. You often have a bit of a throw down about it.”


When it serves no purpose

Though he admitted it was an easy decision to run the photo of the dead dog, Jackson said he won’t run graphic photos if they serve no purpose.

“Several years ago there was a man who fell down a construction site and we had the pictures of the body and it wasn’t covered. We didn’t run that,” he said.

“You have to have taste. We are a community.”

Clow said CBC has also refused to air images because viewers didn’t need to see them to understand the story.

“I was working in Washington when Saddam Hussein was hanged and we made a decision not to put that on television because there’s nothing gained from that,” she said.

“You don’t want to censor anything, obviously, but there’s some things that don’t do any good, and you’re only putting them on for some reason that isn’t the most honourable one, necessarily, so you have to stay away from those.”

Clow said CBC will air some graphic images if it’s justified. Before they can show footage of planes crashing into the twin towers, they must take their case to an ethics board, who then approves or denies the request.

“(The footage) can’t be used casually. There has to be thought. For example, the Fifth Estate used it in a documentary a few weeks ago about the safety of airports, and that’s obviously connected. Tonight if there’s a story about terrorists, I can’t just slap that on TV.”

In 1986, a Miramichi man, Allan Legere, killed a shopkeeper and his wife in Black River Bridge, N.B.. Carnahan’s editor asked her to take photos of the shopkeeper’s blood-stained front door. Carnahan thought it was inappropriate and served no purpose.

“It was just horrific what they went through…I thought they had been through enough grief. What was it going to do to show a picture of the door with blood splattered on it?”

Carnahan said her editor put sensationalism ahead of good journalism.

Carnahan, a young reporter at the time, went to the home and took a photo from across the street in her parked car.

“I knew better as a photographer that it was not going to be a great photo and I don’t think that my editor was really happy about it, but at the same time, I think we all as photojournalists or reporters, whether you’re writing a story or taking a picture, there’s always trying to find that balance between doing the job and showing respect,” she said.

“I always think that that’s a very fine line sometimes between doing a good job, being a good photojournalist, and also sensationalism. I think that we have to be very conscious and very aware of what we do take pictures of and the message that we’re trying to send.”


Audience reaction

When Corrine Brewer stumbled upon the photo of the dead dog in the Cape Breton Post, she was horrified. She feared that children would see the photo and never forget it.

Carnahan said that’s the point.

“People look at it and say, ‘Oh I don’t want to look at it because it upsets me,’ but this is the society that we all live in. We all have the responsibility … of education and making our children aware of the consequences of getting pets and not caring for them more. We have a responsibility to be kind to animals and sometimes that responsibility isn’t taken seriously enough.”

While some agree with Brewer, more see Carnahan’s point. On the commentary section of the Cape Breton Post, one commentator wrote: “Was it really necessary to show the photo of the dead dog? The story was disgusting and shocking enough without having that image burned into my brain.”

Many replied. One wrote: “If the more sensitive amoung (sic) us would like to not see dead dogs on the front page of the paper, then make them go away, not by haranguing the paper, but by holding your local authorities to the standards that they claim to have.” Another wrote: “The reason The Cape Breton Post put the picture on the front cover was to inform readers how SICK some people really are. It got your attention didn’t it!!”

Jackson said the comments prove that the paper was justified in running the photo.

Kristin Williams, executive director of Nova Scotia SPCA, said she has mixed feelings about photos of abused animals in the news.

“There are two schools of thought…with respect to cruelty. One of them is that with showing graphic pictures, you can be more convincing about the crimes that do take place involving animals. Another school of thought is that it does much to isolate and remove your supporters from supporting,” she said.

“I’ve even had donors say to me, ‘I know what it is you do but just don’t show me. I really just want to hear the happy stories,’ and I can appreciate that…but it begs the question, though, ‘Is there a time and a place?’ and perhaps there is. When you want to bring some attention to something, the more vivid you are, the more attention that you garner, but at the same time it has the counter-effect with your supporters.”

Though she said she understands Jackson’s reasoning for running the photo, Williams wonders if the story could have gotten as much attention without the image of the deceased dog.

“Would a story with the dog healthy, happy, and alive gotten as much attention? Possibly. Because I do think that if people saw the animal in the prime of its life, would they have had the same reaction? Very likely.”

Clow said CBC often gets feedback from unhappy viewers.

“A little while ago we showed a picture of a dead coyote and we got … mail about that. They said it’s not appropriate to show during supper. I don’t necessarily regret my decision to put it on, and I would defend it to them, but I’ll gladly have a conversation about it.”

Clow said the advantage that TV has over print is they can warn viewers, who can then decide if they want to look at the image.

“We often put … ‘What you’re about to see is disturbing, what you’re about to see is not suitable for children,’ or ‘What you’re about to see is not suitable for someone who is sensitive to violence.’”

Every newsroom makes its own decisions

Clow said that there is no universal policy that news organizations follow when deciding to run or air an image. Every newsroom follows its own logic and each reaches its own conclusions based on those logistics.

“Different journalists and different editors have different feelings about everything.”


  1. Janet W Chernin11:16 AM

    Thanks for sharing this article - very thought provoking - I do find the SPCA statement has me perplexed instead of sugar coating the SPCA should be actively lobbying in all public forums to mobilize the public for change in laws. The need to 'shock' and show the sad state of this dog was necessary to educate the public to the cruelty of chaining dogs and neglect. Again federal law, provincial law and municipal laws must change to ensure humane treatment of animals.

  2. Personally, I am so haunted by photos that I usually don't read the text but skip the story altogether. I do best work when my mind is clear and so I do what is behaviorally common - I avoid!
    The thing is, everyone who turns on the TV or opens up has seen disturbing footage again and again and again - and what has changed? Nothing! So, for me, I la-la-la-la keep my head stuck in the sand and focus on things I can change - knowing of course on a deep level about the suffering of every species but able to function because I refuse to look at it.

  3. That's interesting, Silvia - because I'm sure you're like me and get a lot of gratuitious suffering that I can't do anything about through my inbox everyday - and I don't look at those pictures either. And when I see documentaries on the television that show a lot of suffering - I don't watch those either. But I think there are some things that do need to be seen - think about Haiti, and the Tsunami in Asia - if we wouldn't have seen their suffering, do you think it would have affected the world like it did? And think about how the world is able to let things continue to happen in Africa - because nobody is covering that. There is definitely inequities - simply because we are given access to their suffering.


  4. True enough, Joan. But in my opinion the attention people give a reported suffering is short lived and rarely leads to the kind of changes that diminishes suffering long term.
    I mean, we still have puppy mills, abused animals - owned, farmed and researched - look how long it took to make changes to the seal slaughter. You are correct that the footage rallied millions to give to Haiti, but what about the earthquakes in Chili and Turkey? How often do we see reports from war zones? Yet civilians are still bombed.
    Maybe I am seeing this too dark.

  5. We'll never get rid of things like puppy mills, abattoirs - and I include the seal hunt in that term because that is simply an abattoir without walls, and abused animals - because we'll always have humans who want to make money off of sentient beings they see as being less powerful than them - and humans will abuse other humans - so to abuse an animal is even easier - so even more animals get abused than humans. As long as humans live, those things will never go away no matter what we do. It's not being dark, it's being realistic.