Bringing death close

Publishing photographs of human tragedy

Does a photo depicting tragedy exploit grief or serve a legitimate news function? Decisions involving the use of photographs are among the most difficult that editors face. Future articles will explore similar issues from different perspectives.

By James F. Vesely

James F. Vesely is editor of The Sacramento Union, Sacramento, CA . He is also vice-chair of the APME Ethics Committee.

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. 2 (May 1989), p. 7.

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.


Suddenly, all the theories about taste and responsibility were washed away by the power and intensity of a single photograph.

Late in an early summer afternoon, four editors were standing in the newsroom of The Sacramento Union, staring at a black and white print showing the limp body of 7-year old Lamphone Keovoravoth.

Should we run the photo? Will we offend our readers by depicting death so closely? Is it really news? If we didn’t have the photo would the story even make page one? What are we selling with this paper, information or emotion?

These are no longer easy questions in today’s competitive marketplace. Editors know that a dramatic local story can bring a barrage of telephone calls the next day, readers angry at the impersonal and exploitative press.

Newspapers seem to take the brunt of reader anger in these situations. The very nature of print seems indelible, with its power to plant a message in the mind.

The impact of a single, black and white photo prominently displayed can last in a community’s conscience long after the news has moved on to other events.

Still, the boy is limp in the policeman’s arms. His hair is wet from the river.

The story is full of the small details that serve us as compilers of human tragedy: the boy was swimming in a dangerous part of the Sacramento River, despite many public warnings about the strong current; he disappeared beneath the surface of the river and then was dramatically rescued by a member of the Drowning Accident Rescue Team (DART); the family, poignantly Cambodian refugees, grieves by the banks of the river.

The conversation in the middle of the city room goes like this –

Photo Editor: “Best shot we’ve had in weeks. The photographer did a phenomenal job just getting there. Run it.”

News Editor: “It’s either this or the swearing-in of the president of Brazil. Let’s run it.”

City Editor: “It will be all over television. We have the photo. Even if we focus on the rescue attempt, it’s still our best local story. I’d run it.”

Newsroom debates most often distill toward internal considerations. The photographer got the shot, how could you throw his work away? What do we have that’s better? Another story from 5,000 miles away? We have the photo. We can’t put it in the drawer and not use it, can we?

Of course we can. The whole nature of the debate following the public suicide of Pennsylvania State Treasurer Budd Dwyer centered on the notion that the photos were meaningless as news.

Seeing death in the eye of a man about to blow his brains out was not a legitimate news function, the debate suggested, it was only the basest reason for starting the presses at all.

And yet, the photo before us this summer afternoon overcomes these deliberations with its own overwhelming logic. The rescuer holds in his open arms the life of a young boy. The boy still breathes, but barely. Doctors place the boy on their critical list and then, within a few hours, and despite their urgent work, the boy dies.

In the end, we are left with the only decision we can make. The photo will run because not to run it is the greater error. Even if the community and, sadly, the family are offended by the photo, we reason the greater offense is to withhold news.

Our detractors will say we could run the story, inside the paper, but skip the photo since it does nothing but exploit grief.

But the truth of the matter to the editors gathered in the newsroom is that the photo is the story. It is not just facts which become news.

If only facts were needed, stenographers would find work in city rooms. News and emotion are one. This photo brings an event to an emotional pitch.

If we cannot bring emotion to the news pages, then we can rarely tell a story because in the end, facts are not enough to tell sorrow and joy.