“A photo that had to be used”

Anatomy of a newspaper’s decision

A photograph captures an event as no words can. But should the photo be used if it will cause pain to the already grieving family of the picture’s subject?

By Robin Hughes, editor

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. 7 (October 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.


[Online editor’s note: After a shooting spree at Standard Gravure by one of the printing company’s former employees, The Courier-Journal published a front-page photograph of one of the victims. The photograph showed the dead victim lying on his back at the bottom of the stairs, his arms spread out and his body partially resting on a track used to move large rolls of paper. The photograph prompted more than 500 complaints and a lawsuit –won by The Courier-Journal – that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Although the photo was republished in the original FineLine case, The Courier-Journal has denied permission to republish the photo here. A copy of the photograph can be seen in FineLine, October 1989, p. 3.]

When Louisville Courier-Journal photo and graphics editor C. Thomas Hardin saw the photograph of the shooting victim lying dead on the floor of Standard Gravure, he knew that it was a “photo that had to be used.”

To Hardin, the picture captured the horror of September 14 when a disgruntled former employee of the printing company walked into the plant with an AK-47 military assault rifle and turned it into a killing ground. In a half-hour shooting spree, the gunman wounded 13 and killed 7 before turning a pistol on himself. (Another victim later died.)

“In 25 years, I don’t remember a situation in our coverage area where an event was so tragic or public, ” Hardin said. “Coupled with the national debate on automatic weapons, the use of the photo was validated. “

Readers quickly let the newspaper know that they disagreed and did not appreciate the vivid reminder of the previous day’s events on the front page of their morning paper.

How would you feel if it was your relative’s body, asked many callers to The Courier-Journal. Showing a body is in taste bad and insensitive to the victim’s family and friends, others said.

The victim’s family has since filed suit, alleging that the newspaper intentionally and recklessly inflicted mental distress on the family and that publication of the photo was an invasion of their privacy.

Don Frazier, president of the Graphics Communications International Union of which the photo’s subject was a member, calls the picture “obscene.”

He said he “was shocked to see it.”

“This man was my friend and I know what it [the photo] did to me. I kept thinking what’s this going to do to his family? Why did they have to show his face? They could at least put a shirt or a sheet over him. . .We’ve got over 100 members at Standard and I haven’t heard one of them say anything good about that picture.”

In the week following the shootings, the newspaper was inundated with 580 calls and letters, the overwhelming majority opposed to the picture.

“Some people said they thought we ran the photo just to sell newspapers,” said Editor David Hawpe.

Hawpe emphasized the decision was made after careful consideration and discussion with other editors, some of whom voiced the same concerns about insensitivity that he’d later hear from readers.

“We did think about the impact such a picture might have on the family and friends of the victim,” Hawpe said. “And we also thought about the need to confront readers in our community with the full consequences of gun violence.”

This larger public purpose took precedence, Hawpe decided. “I talked with the [victim’s] family to explain why …His widow rejected my reasons…I deeply regretted any pain the photo caused them.”

Hawpe said, “We thought that after the first edition we could always change our minds if we felt we made a mistake.”

But no change was made.

“The photo did what I wanted it to do by showing the reality of what assault weapons are capable of,” Hawpe said. “A less graphic photograph would not have been as effective.”

Photo editor Hardin agrees. “We don’t make a habit of blood and gore, or showing pictures of accidents, it goes against our tradition. But this photograph was tasteful and dramatic. . . in the same vein as some of the Vietnam photos which brought home the horrors of that war.”

After articles were published explaining Hawpe’s reasons for using the photograph, more positive calls and letters trickled in. The wife of another man killed by the gunman made a trip to the newspaper to deliver a letter stating her support. Sarah Wible, widow of James Wible, wrote: “I would want people to remember that my husband died violently – senselessly – and I don’t want anyone to forget it.”

Union president Frazier concedes that “maybe the picture did raise the consciousness of some about gun violence like he [Hawpe] said he meant to do.”

Frazier adds, “We [Standard Gravure employees] don’t need our consciousness raised, we were there.”

Considering the reaction of the public and the photo subject’s family, would The Courier-Journal publish the photograph again?

“Yes, I’d do the same thing again,” Hawpe said. “I am comfortable with our decision. No, that’s not the right word. We made a defensible decision.”