Distortion of reality?

“Punk for Peace” photograph draws fire

Pictures never lie, the saying goes. You would have a hard time convincing some anti-war demonstrators of that.

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. 3, no. 3 (March 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.


Was The Sacramento Bee letting its “pro-war” bias show in its choice of a photograph to accompany a story about an anti-war demonstration? Some of the demonstrators let The Bee know that they believed it had; even more complained that the photo misrepresented the reality of the event to its readers.

On January 19, (1991) several hundred people gathered in Sacramento to take part in a peaceful demonstration against the Gulf war. A story noted that the protest “took a decidedly middle-class turn as attorneys, social workers and liberal lobbyists . . . joined hands with students.”

Yet the picture to illustrate the story, which was played prominently, was of a young man wearing a “Punk for Peace” T-shirt. He had decorated his face like a death mask with bullets and cartridges.

The Bee‘s ombudsman Art Nauman said most of the callers about the photograph had the same complaint: “You have tarred us all with the same brush and misrepresented who we are — middle-class, ordinary folks. This character was an aberration and your photographer honed in on this aberration.”

The day after the “Punk for Peace” picture ran, The Bee had yet more picture problems when it did a photo layout of anti-war demonstrators to go with a feature on San Francisco’s history of civil protest.

The story was published after a weekend of peaceful demonstrations in San Francisco. But the photographs used were all taken on the previous Thursday, the day after the war began, when a demonstration had resulted in some arrests and acts of violence. The dominant picture used was a color shot of five people vandalizing a U.S. Army recruiting office.

Once again, callers to The Bee charged distortion because the vandalism picture wasn’t representative of the peaceful protests over the weekend.

Bee executives involved in the photo selection told ombudsman Nauman that they had no ulterior motives — the “punk” picture offered variety, the vandalism picture captured an actual event.

Nauman writes in his column on the photo controversy that the editors should have asked — and answered — a key question: “Why is the photo suggesting one thing but some of the word coverage another? The apparent contradiction should have been cured before the presses rolled.”