To Publish or Not to Publish. A conundrum explained.
I was at my desk Monday morning processing photos from an earlier assignment when a call came over the scanner that got my attention. A 2-year-old was standing alone in the middle of Bates Street by the Nutritional Center. Without hesitation, I grabbed my camera, bolted out the door and across Kennedy Park. The young girl was sitting in the passenger seat of the LPD meter maid’s small pickup truck seconds later, playing with a rubber glove she had blown up like a balloon to distract the child. The ever-present downtown parking enforcement officer was just around the corner when she too heard the call and beat me there.
Within a minute or two of my arrival, a man came running, frantic and then relieved when he noticed his missing daughter sitting in the vehicle. The young girls’ cries of DADDY!!!!! and a giant hug complete with tears convinced everyone he was her father.
I recorded some dramatic images that will never see the light of day. For a number of reasons, we chose not to publish them online or in print. This decision will please some and frustrate others, especially many photojournalists. As I age, perhaps I am becoming “soft”, or just more pragmatic and compassionate? I have a feeling that 20 years ago I would have been jumping up and down lobbying to use the photos. After all, they were dramatic, told a story of something that happens all the time and might be a good reminder for young parents to keep a better watch on their kids. Back then I didn’t have a lot of thoughts about compassion and fallout created when we publish photos that put people in compromising situations.
After numerous events where we have regretted publishing a dramatic scene in print, online, and especially LIVE, I have taken to heart the part of our mission statement that reads: “Consider the effect on people, families, and community.” Having empathy, sensitivity and kindness play as big a role in my thought process now before pressing LIVE or submitting a particular photo for publication. I want to be first with breaking news, publish thought provoking, emotional, gripping images that tell a story and be a technology leader and innovator. But I now put more consideration into the ramifications and fallout.
As I took in all the information, I began to ponder the situation. The good samaritan did not want to be identified, the girl was a juvenile and the father was obviously distraught, concerned and now afraid of being the subject of a newspaper article. He was clean shaven, well dressed, well spoken and clear eyed. He was not some drunk or junkie too spaced out to know where his children were. That should probably not be a consideration to remain neutral and unbias, but it was for me. If it means losing credibility in the eyes of fellow journalists, so be it. I was fortunate when I was this father’s age with my 3 young children. I lived on a dead end street, so when they wandered away, it was not in the middle of downtown. So right there I could empathize and it weighed on my decision. Adding to the “don’t publish column” I had no names, there were no charges being filed and it was over and done with nobody hurt.
The child and parents were already traumatized. They would surely be ostracized by friends, family, and neighbors if the story and photos were published. I was thinking that it could be good to publish what happened as it might contribute to other parents being more attentive. A stretch, but an argument historically used to validate publishing many “news” photos. In the end, before I walked off, I gave the well-rehearsed response of “I was told to come photograph this and I really don’t decide if it is used or not.” The father was not happy but understood. I was already thinking this story and photos would end up in the “not for publication” folder.
With a situation like this, I seek opinion and guidance from my supervisors who will also consider a number of factors. First and foremost is my input. It was my decision to respond to the scene as is the case with most calls we hear come over the police and fire scanner. The fact that it happened so close enabled me to get there to record the incident. A type of incident that is repeated throughout the twin cities several times a month. I have heard many calls for lost or wandering young children and not reacted. Proximity, scheduling, and other factors play into the decision to respond or not. Most often they find the child or locate the parents before we could have ever arrived, so we tend not to go. But it was across the street and I took the risk. Taking a chance on something is the nature of the newspaper business. The majority of the time I respond to something I hear on the scanner never pans out for more reasons than I have time or space to list. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I listened to the young father tell the police officer that he was at work when his wife called. She told him she was tending to the other two younger siblings when she noticed the oldest was gone. He bolted from work and began to drive around the neighborhood looking for her. He was on the phone with the police dispatcher to report the missing child when he came around the corner and discovered the police and his daughter. He was relieved but horrified to see me there blasting away with my camera. The anxiety and stress on the family were clear and sincere
When I returned to the office, I brought up 4 of the best photos from the incident on my monitor and called over the two senior editors in the newsroom. I told the story of what happened. They both made the same basic arguments I had been pondering, pro and con. They were each on the fence, one leaning toward publishing, the other not so much. In the end, we all agreed that it would be best to not make the photos public. I have included one of the less dramatic, but a scene setter with blurred faces to give readers of this article a scene setter.
Some days I take lots of photos that are never published. Others I take only a few and they all appear. It can be frustrating, but often rewarding. I never know what I will encounter or the decisions I may need to make when I go to work every day. Taking risks to get a great photo often never pans out. And often great photos are never published. It’s an adventure and one of the reasons I still look forward to coming to work.