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Reader comment on item: [Beslan Atrocity:] They're Terrorists - Not Activists

Submitted by Ethel C. Fenig (United States), Sep 9, 2004 at 23:48

I thought you'd be interested in this bizarre rationale from the public editor of the Chicago Tribune. Frankly, I think they should just call them alleged perp(etrator)s to retain the lofty neutrality they so pathetically seek.


Chicago Tribune | Publishing pictures that might offend
From the Public Editor
Don Wycliff
Publishing pictures that might offend
published September 9, 2004

Everyone who was in on the decision-making knew there would be protests, and our readers did not disappoint.

As soon as Saturday's Tribune hit subscribers' front porches, with a five-column photo of child victims of that homicidal Russian hostage-taking spread across the top of Page 1, phones began to ring at Tribune Tower and e-mail inboxes began to fill up.

"Reporting the news about the school being raided and people being killed is one thing," Beth Lukas of Crystal Lake said in a representative phone message. "But your picture on the front page, I think, borders on sensationalism. That is not necessary. It is a disgusting, sickening picture."

With all due respect, Mrs. Lukas, I couldn't disagree more. If you view a painting of a Jesus in his mother's arms at the foot of the cross and all you see is a dead guy with nail holes in him, then yes, the picture is "disgusting." If you look at a still-life of game animals on a medieval kitchen table and all you see is dead rabbits and birds, then yes, the picture is "sickening."

In the case of the Russian school slaughter, "disgusting" and "sickening" would have been the image of the one child, his thin, broken, nearly naked body in a state of disarray, being carried dead on a stretcher out of the burned, bombed school.

"Disgusting" and "sickening" would have been any of the images of children's bodies, stacked up like so many pieces of firewood, in a closet.

But by comparison with those pictures, the photograph that the Tribune ran was a Pieta. Not only was it decorous and respectful; it was a work of art.

"It wasn't the dead bodies that made the picture," said Jonathan Elderfield, the picture editor who handled the Russia story Friday for the photo desk. "It was the emotion."

He was referring to the actions of the three adults in the photo--and especially of the woman, clad in a black dress and stooped to the ground at the head of one of the stretchers that bore the children's bodies. Her right arm is extended and her right hand rests lightly upon the forehead of a little girl whose body, except for the head, is shrouded in a white sheet. The woman's other hand is at her own throat--the better to squelch her own sobs, perhaps?

But it is her face, drawn and filled with an unutterable sadness, that draws the viewer's attention. If you were indifferent to this story before, if Beslan, Russia, might as well have been on the far side of the moon, you could not fail to care and to empathize after seeing that woman's--that mother's--grief-stricken face.

I sat for a few minutes with Elderfield a couple of days ago and looked over his shoulder as he electronically thumbed through the notebook of hostage-story pictures that he harvested from the various wire services Friday for the senior editors to consider.

Several things quickly became apparent as I listened to his commentary. One was that if "sensationalism" had been the newspaper's purpose in choosing a Page 1 photo, there were many that were far more gruesome and sensational than the one ultimately chosen.

Another was that a difference of a second or two between two photos can be the difference between art and afterthought. Another picture, with the same cast of characters as the one that ran Saturday, shows the three adults in ever-so-slightly different positions. Most important, the woman in black is not looking tenderly at her child's face, but away from it. It was a nice snapshot, but it had none of the evocative power of the photo that made the paper.

As is always the case on the rare occasions when we run graphic photos of dead people, some readers complained that the paper exposed their children to an aspect of reality they did not want them to see. To which I must make the same answer I always do: We are not insensitive to such concerns--most of us have children also--but we cannot edit a newspaper that serves the information needs of adults to standards appropriate for children.

If children need to be protected from this part of reality, we must rely on our subscribers to do so--or, perhaps better, to explain it to them.

One other facet of the Russian hostage story also provoked considerable reader response: It was the Tribune's use of the words "militant" or "rebel," but not "terrorist," to refer to the hostage-takers in news stories.

"How can you ... describe these folks as anything but `terrorists'?" asked Jim Ihlenfeld of Aurora, in one of the more temperate such messages

Our eschewal of the word "terrorist" was in keeping with a stylebook policy adopted several years ago, a policy that is in keeping with the journalistic purpose of the news pages: to provide as complete, thorough and unbiased an account as possible of the important news of the day.

No intellectually honest person can deny that "terrorist" is a word freighted with negative judgment and bias. So we sought terms that carried no such judgment.

At the same time, our news stories--and photos--have not stinted on detail about what the hostage-takers did, to whom they did it and what the deadly results have been. No intellectually honest person can contend he or she was denied the information necessary to figure out what name the hostage-takers might deserve.

To borrow a currently fashionable phrase: We report, you decide.

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