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Seamans: Photo Reporting Dilemma

02/03/10 7:55AM By Bill Seamans
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(HOST) The situation in Haiti has reminded commentator Bill Seamans of a long-standing debate in the journalistic community.

(SEAMANS) The task of reporting the tragedy in Haiti has brought up one of the most difficult problems for photo journalists - whether to shoot scenes that show the real story in all its detailed horror - or to picture views that are less upsetting so as not to shock or offend some of the audience back home.  It's a professional and perhaps moral question whether to present reality head-on, or instead, serve up an edited version that offers essentially a superficial view of how bad a disaster truly is.

Our photographers and their picture editors back home contend with what is said to be a culture in which some want to avoid reality if possible - as we the people allow our politicians to push the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into the background.  I've often heard camera persons express their professional anguish knowing that they are doing their best under the most difficult circumstances but feeling that what comes out at the other end does not tell the real dimensions of their stories.

The public editor of the New York Times, who comments on the problems and quality of the newspaper's reporting, recently wrote that the burden falls on every editor in the news media. He said, "every disaster that produces horrific scenes of carnage presents photographers and their editors with the challenge of telling the unsanitized truth - that it was hard to look at some of the pictures of suffering and death caused by the earthquake in Haiti - and impossible to turn away."  He then told how the times had received complaints from readers who said they were offended by pictures of bodies scattered in the streets and piled up in the morgue.  They charged that the publication by the Times of such scenes was, to quote some of the letters, "exploitive, sensational, unnecessary, unethical, unkind and inhumane".

Thus photo editors face the huge problem of deciding which pictures to use in order to avoid upsetting some of their readers.  From reporters on the ground covering wars and other humanitarian upheavals, as this reporter often has, the answer is obvious - they want to tell the story accurately and truthfully.  Even only word pictures hit the wall of emotional criticism - one of my written reports describing how children had been blown apart when terrorists bombed their school in Israel was spiked because, I was told my description was too graphic - my report was changed by the editor to say simply that "thirty school children had been killed by the explosion" - did that tell the story?

It's honestly difficult to know the right balance, but the public should at least know enough about the horror to have an informed opinion.

Some New York Times readers wrote they were "grateful" for its photo reporting which they said had surely helped to energize humanitarian donations and volunteerism.  One times reader said, "but run from it? Never! - people should really try staring truth in the face and try to understand it."
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