A picture of controversy

Pulitzer photos show diverse editorial standards

Many newspapers never ran the more shocking photos in the series winning the spot news Pulitzer Prize. What standards were used to decide?

By Sue O’Brien, Mari Ann Shake and Mark Nolan

Sue O’Brien is an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where Mari Ann Shake and Mark Nolan are students.

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

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 5 (May 1991), 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.


In the unregulated but highly self-critical world of photo journalism, many standards are used to decide whether a photograph makes it into the morning paper. A survey of editors on their use of this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photos for spot news shows the measuring stick for publication is as different as the editors and newspapers themselves.

Freelance photographer Gregory Marinovich captured the prize-winning photos in Soweto on September 15, as a mob savagely murdered a man suspected of being a spy. “They told me to stop taking pictures,” Marinovich told his editors. “I said I would stop shooting when they stopped killing him.”

In all, six photographs were made available by the Associated Press: the suspected spy being led from a train station by five men, dragged down the street, beaten, stoned, stabbed and, ultimately, doused with gasoline and set afire.

The shots were “too strong, too grisly, too gruesome, even for an inside page,” said Sacramento Bee ombudsman Art Nauman, whose paper did not use any of the photos.

The (Albany) Times-Union published four of the photographs on the front page. “If you live in the real world, then accept the fact that the world is ugly,” said Dan Lynch, managing editor.

Denver’s Rocky Mountain News warned readers on Page 3 about the photos deeper in the paper: “In Soweto, a photographer pleads to no avail with a mob that beats, stabs and burns to death a man suspected of being a Zulu spy. The photos are horrific and disturbing.”

Of 57 newspapers surveyed, 24 ran the burning or stabbing. Eight put the immolation on Page 1. At one paper, the stabbing was on Page 1 in color.

Seventeen papers, including the Boston GlobeChicago Sun TimesOrange County Register and Washington Post, chose less violent scenes.

Sixteen papers, including the Chicago Tribune and Seattle Times, rejected all six photos. But whether or not editors used the shots of the mob murder, many said they got little help from the old tests for acceptability — for example, whether the photo will offend readers, the so-called “breakfast test.”

“I don’t think the breakfast test works for the ’90s,” said Jeff Jarvis, Sunday editor at the New York Daily News.

Or, as Minneapolis Star Tribune photo editor Mike Zerby said, “the standard line is ‘we don’t bleed on your eggs.’ But I think at this particular newspaper we’ve grown past that.”

Serge McCabe, photo director, The (Portland) Oregonian: “We have to use some of these photos sometimes or else nothing ever changes. The war in Vietnam really didn’t start drawing to an end or start drawing a lot of protest until those images started coming in.”

Many editors willing to tell the story forcefully balked at the photo showing an assailant plunging a blade into the victim’s forehead. “It showed violence and animalistic hatred,” said Roman Lyskowski, graphics editor at the Miami Herald.

The Daily News‘s Jarvis rejected both the burning and the stabbing. “Whether it’s images of the Holocaust or images of South Africa, if you become desensitized to it, it becomes less important,” he said, noting that the burning was somehow less shocking than the stabbing. “I remember immolation pictures from the Vietnam era . . . That’s not as unusual an image as that knife sticking right out of the skull.”

At the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the stabbing was chosen for front-page color as the more arresting image. “I look at the moment that the photo freezes on film,” said news editor Joe Sevick. “Rarely do you see a photo where a knife is about to go into somebody.”

Most papers had no set photo policies to fall back on. “We had all these rules . . . You don’t run pictures of snakes, toilets and bodies. We discovered that the only rule we have is that we don’t have a rule,” said Steve Small, St. Petersburg Times photo director.

Interestingly, the Pulitzer made the mob murder photographs more palatable to editors. Even the more graphic shots found space in several newspapers where they’d earlier been excluded. One photo editor, who had lost the fight to run the photo of the burning in September, crowed after his paper ran it in April: “No problem, it just went right in the paper,” he said. “It’s no longer graphic– it’s the Pulitzer.”