Seeing both sides

A personal and professional dilemma

Should a newspaper publish a photo of a grieving mother whose children died in a fire? The decision is difficult for any editor – and even more difficult for an editor who lost his own family in the same way.

By Charles Wilson

Charles Wilson is managing editor, Rushville Republican, Rushville, IN.

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. 3 (June 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.


Where do you draw the line between the rights of the news media to cover a tragedy and the rights of the victims to privacy in their grief? The fact that I had been on both sides of the line made the choice and its aftermath that much more painful.

As managing editor of the Rushville Republican, I faced the dilemma this January when two young girls were killed in a house fire. Our photographer, Jeff Emsweller, heard the fire call over his scanner and found a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the scene – “that photo” as it became known.

The picture showed a hysterical young mother in windblown nightclothes, being restrained by a police officer whose own intense emotions shone clearly upon his face.

The emotion in the photo was palpable. We all knew it was a hell of a good photograph; we also knew that in a small town like Rushville it would cause us some trouble.

There was not any real doubt in my mind that we should use the picture. We had to. Without a single word, that photo captured the heart and soul of the story in terms that anyone could understand; grief screamed out at us in black and white, grabbing each one of us by the heart.

But it was a decision I felt I could not make alone. About 12 years before, in Landess, Indiana, my grandmother, aunt and three of my cousins had died in a fire. The grief was hard enough on our family; the prying press coverage after the fire did nothing to help. (I remember one TV reporter coolly asking my uncle how he felt hearing his family scream as they died.) For years, my own bitterness over the episode made me give up my childhood dream of being a reporter. I finally did end up working on newspapers, but I swore never to cross the line that would force me to invade someone else’s grief.

But now, from the other side of the line, I knew we had to use that photograph. The photo was too good not to use. It accomplished what any good photo must do: It told a story, without any words. But the deciding factor had nothing to do with the quality of the photograph; it was a moral decision.

As powerful as the photograph was, it just might save someone’s life. If just one person was as moved by the photo as we were, and was motivated to buy a smoke detector, or check their fire escape routes, and that action ended up saving them from a fire, it would be worth all the flak we expected to take.

And we got what we expected. The phones started ringing that afternoon after the paper hit the racks, and didn’t stop. Almost all of the callers demanded to know why we had run such a picture. Some people said it was sick. Some said it was in poor taste. Interestingly, virtually all of the callers the first two days were women. Many of them seemed scandalized at the fact that we had photographed the woman in her nightgown, and most of her thigh was showing.

On Thursday, I wrote an editorial explaining why we ran the photo. The calls faded to a trickle in the next few days, but the next week we got some letters to the editor. To our surprise, they were all positive.

One woman wrote that she at first was outraged by what she saw as “sensationalism in its basest form,” but after reading the editorial and realizing our purpose in running the photo, she realized that the purpose had been fulfilled. She had bought an additional smoke detector and staged household fire drills. She had even shown the photo to her young daughter, stressing that one careless match could cause a similar tragedy.

“In dire cases, I feel that motivation by fear is justified,” she wrote. “In retrospect, I can see that the Republican‘s motivation in this instance paralleled my own.”

She was not alone. In the few days following the fatal fire, the Rushville Fire Department sold 23 dozen cases of smoke detectors.

I believe at least part of the credit goes to “that photo” and the impact it had on the community. It grabbed the whole town by the heart, and it scared it. More importantly, it made people do something about what was scaring them.