What's good taste in tragedy, or does it matter?

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Tragedy always provides an opportunity for journalists to write (even more than they normally do) about themselves, so allow me to continue this hallowed tradition. Today, we're talking about whether or not it's a sensational play for outraged eyeballs to run graphic pictures of death with an accompanying story — or if the pictures, like the words, are just part of covering terrible things.

A well-known example are the images of people jumping from the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, which most media outlets declined debated whether or not to show. But the most recent are the images that have followed the murder of three Americans and J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, by a (well-armed, well-trained) mob.

For a time, FOX News' website prominently featured the image of Stevens hanging from the arms of Libyans said to be rushing him to the hospital after the attack; the New York Times featured it also, actually drawing a request from the State Department to remove the image. The paper delicately refused, saying, "This chaotic and violent event was extremely significant as a news story, and we believe this photo helps to convey that situation to Times readers in a powerful way."

Here's what new public editor Margaret Sullivan had to say, referencing the fact that most media organizations haven't hesitated to show images of dead Arabs while covering the Iraq war, for example:

Who’s right — the readers who are protesting, or the editors? It’s a tough call, and it’s an area in which sensibilities have changed over the years.

But if you accept the idea that each human life has the same value and dignity, and there is no consistent objection to seeing images of the dead from other countries, it’s hard to mount a reasonable argument against what editors here chose to do. To put it clearly: They made the right call.

Having said that, I would not want to see a similar photograph on the front page of Thursday’s print edition, where its prominence and permanence would give it a different weight.

Similar push-back came from those same readers when the Times ran this photo (from a lineup of 10) on its front page with a story about the shooting at the Empire State Building.

I didn't really understand the problem at the time of the shooting, and I still don't with the killing of the ambassador. My position is that when crappy things happen, the coverage will contain crappy things.

This came to a head in a Facebook discussion with photojournalist Bryan Oller — who has shot a litany of historic events, including, recently, the Waldo Canyon Firewho yesterday wrote (of FOX's website), "This is about as low as a news organization can go. Their top story of the death of the American ambassador in Libya with a photo of the ambassador either before or after his passing. Photo editing at it's worse [sic]."

Oller, who shoots for the Indy among other outlets, continued: "The debate is between poor taste or relevant news photo." I countered that I didn't want a news organization to be making those decisions for me — employing a parental role, essentially.

At the Indy, says managing editor Kirk Woundy, we'd likely look at such situations on a case-by-case basis. But since our overarching goal is to give people the truth, however ugly — and since our readers aren't likely to get much controversial coverage from other local media outlets — the burden of persuasion would likely fall to the "Don't print it" side of the debate.

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