A careless step, a rash of calls

“Unusual” photo of AIDS walkathon raises hackles”

Must newspaper coverage of an event be “representative,” or is the distinctive by itself acceptable?

By Craig Fujii

Craig Fujii is a photographer for The Seattle Times.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 8 (November 1989), p. 3.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

At the beginning, there was nothing unusual about this benefit walkathon.

Folks gathered pledges, laced on their walking shoes and hit the pavement on a sunny fall day in Seattle.

But coverage in The Seattle Times, specifically the photograph that the newspaper used, caused a furor among readers who had participated in the walk. It didn’t accurately represent the event, they said.

The photo shows men dressed in nuns’ habits and wearing theatrical makeup. They called themselves the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and they said they were an AIDS fund-raising group.

The group caused quite a stir. Other walkers cheered and called, “Way to go, Sisters!” Some took pictures; others stared.

This group was an obvious “photo opportunity” and I took pictures for The Times.

The photos I shot before the appearance of the Sisters seemed bland: people standing under a cloud of balloons, Mom and Dad from suburbia, U.S.A. pushing strollers.

Going into the event, I understood the red flags that accompany AIDS as an issue, and I made an effort to photograph the event to show people from “All Walks of Life,” the slogan of this year’s walk for the Northwest AIDS Foundation.

I avoided photographing people who could be stereotyped based on their appearance. Yes, the Sisters are a stereotype from the early days of Gay Pride parades, but I rationalized that they were at the event and did everything they could to draw attention to themselves. I shot pictures and headed for another assignment.

I was called off that assignment to cover a spot news situation. This was a follow-up on a shootout that concerned an Army Ranger and some people he said were involved in drug dealing. This story was Page One news and was the subject of heavy discussion in the newsroom.

Back at the office, with negatives on the light table, the walkathon paled in news appeal compared to the shootout. One picture for the walkathon would do, I thought, and a shot of the Sisters was an easy choice. I, and the photo editor on duty, didn’t think about how the picture would be received. It was a “grabber” picture. We turned our attention to editing the shootout photos.

The next day The Times city desk fielded a large handful of telephone calls complaining about the photo.

There were too many callers to remain smugly confident that our newspaper had made the correct editing decisions. It’s easy to brush off the few who will always be offended, but these dozens? People I had met on other AIDS fund-raising stories were thoughtful and compassionate.

I wrote to Frank Wetzel, the newspaper’s ombudsman, who is always accessible via computer messaging. I explained the situation, saying the

Sisters “were a stunning sight, and I didn’t feel I could just ignore them.”

I added that we “may have erred” in not pairing that photo with another, less incendiary shot.

Wetzel’s computer bulletin board is a great place to comment on issues involving readers or how we cover news.

He discussed the issue in his column the following Sunday.

“Is it the photographer’s job to provide the most eyecatching shot available, or is it to provide the general tone?” he asked.

He went on to explain that “Journalists are trained to focus on the unusual, the abnormal, the aberrational.” Then he agreed with me that the photo used should have been accompanied by another “more representative of the occasion.”

A casual chat with Stanley Farrar, assistant managing editor for graphics, made the original decision to use the photo more palatable.

“You can’t run a transcript of every event you cover,” said Farrar, who had not been on duty the night we made the decision.

Farrar says journalism by its nature does not deal with the mundane, and thus we aren’t obligated to cover everything.

He’s right.

But did we make the right editing decision? I’m convinced that we made a thoughtless error. Although no harm was intended, our newspaper may have left with some of our readers an indelibly incorrect reaffirmation of what gays and lesbians are all about.

We should remember basic tenets of ethical journalism – to add perspective to accuracy, to be fair even when we are in a rush, to treat every photo as important.

I hope I cover the walkathon next year. But I hope the Sisters aren’t there.