Review Case 22 “Dead Body Photo” in Ch. 5 of Media Ethics and answer the following questions:
·What were the arguments in favor of and against publishing the photo?
·Do you believe the photo should have been published? Why or why not?
·What are the ethically relevant similarities and differences between this case and the publishing of photos showing the coffins of soldiers killed in foreign wars as they return? Do you believe that the latter is more ethically justifiable than the former example? Why?
Dead Body Photo
John Harte was the only photographer working on Sunday, July 28, at the BakersfieldCalifornian. After some routine assignments, he heard on the police scanner about a drowning at a lake twenty-five miles northeast of Bakersfield. When he arrived on the scene, divers were still searching for the body of five-year-old Edward Romero, who had drowned while swimming with his brothers.
The divers finally brought up the dead boy, and the sheriff kept onlookers at bay while the family and officials gathered around the open body bag. The television crew did not film that moment, but Harte ducked under the sheriff’s arms and shot eight quick frames with his motor-driven camera.
Source: The Bakersfield Californian, July 29, 1985, 1. Photo by John Harte. Reprinted by permission.
Readers bombarded the 80,000-circulation daily with 400 phone calls, 500 letters, and 80 cancellations. The Californian even received a bomb threat, forcing evacuation of the building for ninety minutes.
Distraught by the intensity of the reaction, Bentley sent around a newsroom memo admitting that “a serious error of editorial judgment was made. . . . We make mistakes—and this clearly was a big one.” He concluded that their most important lesson was “the stark validation of what readers—and former readers—are saying not just locally but across the country: that the news media are seriously out of touch with their audiences.”
For photographer John Harte, Bentley’s contrition was “disappointing to me and many of my coworkers.” And editorial page editor, Ed Clendaniel, of the Walla Walla(Washington) Union Bulletin was not apologetic either about running it in his paper, even though it was out of context. “First, the foremost duty of any paper is to report the news,” he argued. “One of the hard facts of life is that the world is filled with tragic moments as well as happy moments. . . . Second, we believe the photograph does more to promote water safety than 10,000 words could ever hope to accomplish.”
Later Bentley entered Harte’s photo in the Pulitzer Prize competition. “I really don’t see any contradiction,” he explained. “I think the photograph should never have been published. . . . But the Pulitzer Prize is given for journalistic and technical excellence. It is not given for reader approval.”