On Tragedy

Posted by Megan
Picturing tragedy and disaster is a Photo Editor’s toughest, and most important job. 

Many of the world’s most iconic or most remembered images are from events laden with injury, pain and death, and bringing those images into public awareness is always a deeply thought-out process.  It’s very likely your mind can conjure the highly-circulated images from the London bombing, September 11th, the tsunami, or even the IRA bombing in Brighton.  The images become evocative of the events and the surrounding questions; some images – like those from Normandy Beach during World War II, or the lone man standing in Tainanman Square – become symbols of history, itself.

In the next week and coming months, as the repercussions of what officials are calling the ‘nation’s worst gun rampage’ begin to unfold, pictures of the events will no doubt become iconic in their own way.  Some will see them as a reminder of America’s lax gun laws, a witness of poor security and police duties, or even a glimpse into the dark American psyche.  Regardless of the reasons, as the story marks a terrible milestone for US history, and the questions start to build, the pictures begin to inhabit a life of their own.

Yesterday and today, it was our job as the homepage team to decide how, when and where those pictures were going to be used.

News of the shootings broke late yesterday afternoon, and shortly thereafter video and imagery began to come through wire services.  While confusion seemed to illustrate itself inside tilted, blurry frames, the truth about the events soon became clear:  this was the worst shooting rampage the US had ever seen, and we needed to bring that news, swiftly and accurately, to our readers.

The most powerful pictures, namely those of police carrying victims from Norris Hall which featured on many of today’s front pages, were not delivered through the wire services until late last night or this morning, so choices were limited. Ian produced a slide featuring one such picture, which did well in showing the gravity of the shootings, and the confusion involved.  The picture shows the police carrying at least two victims, walking out in a strangely-formed queue, across a large patch of grass.  It is this picture – a nicely tended lawn, clean stone building and quaint lamp posts contrasting with clearly distressed victims and policeman –  that will perhaps become this event’s most remembered image.
Once the story began to develop this morning, however, we questioned how best to portray what was happening.  Time-difference aside, we wanted our coverage to be very news-oriented and of-the-minute. We decided to change our slide at each large development in the story, which totalled 4 times, starting with 2 images of candlelit vigils taken yesterday evening.  These, to me, were a sort-of “holding breath” imagery, as the tragedy had sunk in but the questions were still unanswered.  As morning broke in the US, our picture changed to reflect the many large developments in the story, which we thought was best illustrated by the hospital CEO surrounded by journalists at a press conference.  By then, which was this afternoon, our News Editor, Tom, finished an in-depth piece on America’s plague of school shootings.  Here is where we decided – after deliberation about whether or not to include the well-known picture of the Columbine shooters (with their massive guns) – to show a deeper sense of emotion, through students quietly hugging on that same well-tended lawn.
In this story, unlike so many others, there was little possibility of offending people by showing images containing injury or death.  The images were far-enough away that we felt they removed a feeling of unease, so this was less of a debate for us.  In many other circumstances, especially when showing Iraq war, showing images of death or injury becomes a large issue.  While, yes, many of those images can disgust or offend people, they can also serve as true indicators of the situation’s gravity, and witnesses to crimes.  On the homepage, we aim our content towards a U-rated audience.  This means we don’t generally show injury, death, guns, cigarettes, or any other imagery that could upset children or other vulnerable readers.  Still, when it comes to an event of such seriousness, we always reserve our right to deliberate.  We ask: does this image need to be shown?  Is there another way to illustrate this without offending people?  What does this picture do for this story?

And now, we’re asking you:  do you think images of death or disaster should be shown in mainstream media?  Are they useful tools of journalism, or just another way for the media to barrage people?

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3 Responses to On Tragedy

  1. Unknown says:

    Though it is hard for concerned parents to avoid the disclaimers and alleged, excesively violent images made upon the influx buoy oflingering school shootings, every one should see these images. To be informed of the impact of it and maybe learn a lesson or two. like the well known children stories we all know and love i.e. boy who cried wolf, many historical events have taught us alot as well i.e. pearl harbor and bombing in heroshema(if thats how you spell it) lesson- dont poke the bear. but if anything was most repetitive it was learn from your mistakes which is the silver lining to all of the stories. here we learn that retributional disgression and murder is not the answer to anger or frustration. 
    to flip the subject a little, a tip to the homepage operators the images should go on the top of the page to avoid the narrowed lines in the top stories and widen it to the way it was originaly. it is much easyer to read when you dont have to pause to scroll down so often. 
      A little suggestion for an upcoming blog!!!!
    Just to clear things up before i begin, I am not some nature fanatic or green party adherent who thinks we should all live in a hut clustered commune in the woods to save the planet from human destruction.Any act suggested that is even remotely part of saving an animal or being anything outside of the human community and human interactions is deemed to be a wasteful act by most people of the American and the U.K. society. My opinion on why is somewhat the poor education on these issues, but mostly the fault of the culture. Our arrogant asses cant find any importance to living things other than ourselves, many people ignore the fact that as we kill animals and the food chain/web collapses, so do we. For example I was listening to AM 1500 KSTP yesterday and heard them talking about a new act called the lights out project. Im not sure if you are familiar but basically it asks all businesses with in Minneapolis and St. Paul (this will likely permeate through other major cities within migratory boundaries) to turn off lights at 12 PM until daylight to save migratory song birds from being attracted to lights and crash into buildings. The KSTP talk show hosts had a good laugh at it in saying how ridiculous this proposal is. Which I far from expected from them, being that they end every daily weather update in saying, “more proof of global warming.” Perplexingly contradictive, I don’t know if he’s ever heard of George W. Bush before but I hear an odd similarity. My father once doubtfully suggested that, a resilient emotion overcoming someone’s casual personality and/or facial expression might be only potentially carried in people whom it is founded in at birth (so I guess they’re just cold hearted). I doubt that someone’s fundamental self is given to him or her at birth, but it is something to chuckle about. Just wondering what are your thoughts on this act, this brings on a new debate in its self. By the way I realize that this is not very compelling and a little miss constructed and colloquial, but informative non the less. Love the homepage I especially like the way you don’t let your ideas and opinions on the issues cloud the listeners judgments as many others do, keep it up. Thanks       

  2. Unknown says:

    Just a suggestion.  Stop focusing on the person who conducted the rampage.  Stop feeding the people who thirst after the gore and intrigue of the mentally ill.  It only serves to show how little we\’ve progressed as \’civilized\’ people from the gladiator days.  On the MSN homepage, there is no choice.  We can\’t get away from the image of the guy brandishing his weapons.  I\’m not trying to be some Polyanna glad girl, but please.  Do we need a constant image of the insane to remind us of how insane this society is? Do we need to constantly focus on the negatives of our culture?  And if your answer is \’yes\’, then please explain what sort of positive consequences such a focus will deliver.  (as surely that is your aim in the long run, right?)   There no longer seems to be much difference between us (the vultures), and the carrion (the victims of the sick and twisted).  But what should we call you–the media–the ones who are in control of what we get fed.  Hyenas?  Wild Dogs?  Or maybe maggots?  You\’ve no more conscience than they.

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