Thursday, 27 August 2015

Death on the front page: Right or wrong?

The Guardian goes with a file picture

The Times uses the moment of death
Our newspapers are divided this morning over whether putting a photograph of the last minute of a 24-year-old girl's life on their front pages is justifiable. It is pretty much a split decision. The Guardian, the Daily Express, the i, The Independent, Metro and the FT choose not to use the picture. The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Mirror and the Daily Star all decide to use it. 

The Scottish Daily Mail uses a file picture, whereas its sister paper uses the moment of death. 
Inevitably Twitter has been awash with outrage this morning. Worryingly, most of the vitriol is levelled at the journalists rather than the man who pulled the trigger.
So, is the use of the photograph justifiable? On the one hand the picture is undoubtedly shocking, it tells the story, the event was live on TV and it has been all over the internet. It is definitely in the public domain. On the other hand, the picture is primarily there for its sensationalism.  Gun deaths in America often barely make it on to the world news pages. And although it happened publicly, it is still a private moment for a young woman and her family. It is an intrusion into grief and it has no real public interest justification.
That these kind of pictures exist reflects the fact that cameras are everywhere. We live in a world where just about every event, including births, explicit sexual activity and death, is recorded. Editors have to make daily decisions on whether to publish or not. 
When I was an editor - long before digital cameras were recording every detail of life - we would still get pictures of death. There were bodies pulled from rivers, car crashes, suicide victims etc. The instinct to publish would often take over and I would have to stop myself and ask why. What would the justification be? 
I am no stranger to death on the front page. I used the harrowing picture of the fans being crushed to death at Hillsborough in 1989 on the front of The Northern Echo. I used the controversial 'road to Basra' picture of the charred corpse of an Iraqi soldier still holding the wheel of his truck. To me, both were justifiable. The Hillsborough picture told the story and identified perfectly what the problem was. 

The Road to Basra
The Basra picture showed the reader what was really going on. There were lots of gung-ho pictures of Tornado jets and brightly lit skies, but this was the gruesome reality of war. We had a duty to show that to our readers. 
When Gaddafi was killed in 2011 there were pictures of his death all over the front pages. I argued they were justified. Simon Ricketts from The Guardian, and a former trainee of mine, disagreed. We had an interesting debate which you can read here
So, would I have used the picture of Alison Parker's last seconds of life on my front page? I am not sure. I would have agonised over it, I would have consulted senior staff and done some inner soul-searching. I would, inevitably, have related it to my own family. And in the end I probably wouldn't have used it. But it would have been a very tough call.

Footnote: I had wondered whether the American tabloid might be more sensitive with the shooting being closer to home. They weren't:

 Thanks as always to the excellent  and @suttonnick


  1. Tough call. But what if the victim had been Princess Diana? surely no editor would have declined to use such a pic.

  2. Absolutely. But I guess there's a different public interest argument George. Nobody in the UK knew who she was until today.