Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Photos and reality: Wheaties test

Comes a request for discussion of the photo at right -- specifically, whether it's appropriate to run pictures of dead dogs on the front. It's always a little tricky to generalize rules from single cases, so (being an agenda-setting sort) I'll tell you a little of what I think about before telling you what I think.

When someone asks what I think about photos of dead animals on 1A, I tend to start with: What kind of animals, and how did they get that way? I don't mean that to be dismissive; I think it's a way of suggesting that most of us would put different photos at different places on the continuum. If there's a chemical spill upstream from My Little Town and the photo is of dead fish crowding the intakes at the water treatment plant, no problem. Dead deer on the first day of the season? I wouldn't front it, but it's pretty easy to imagine cases where that's what the audience would expect. Bear shot dead after running wild up and down Main Street at the peak of back-to-school days? Sure. Dead kitty tortured by local adolescents? Nope.

See a couple of continuums operating there? Mammals are more proximate than fish, and pets more proximate than wild animals. Present danger is bigger than past danger, and public danger bigger than small-scale danger. Ritual news and surprise news raise different sorts of questions. And all those things more or less point to a bigger question: What's the photo saying?

That's a bit of a stumbling block, I think, because decision-makers are inclined to start from the presumption that photos are true, rather than the presumption that photos are highly selective representations of brief moments of reality. Just for the heck of it, here are two AP photos from a press conference by the Rutgers basketball team back during the Don Imus scandal. Is one of them truer than the other? If so, which?

My call (which, I will remind you, is easily worth the price of your subscription) is that they're true about different things. When you choose between them, you're making a discursive choice rather than an "objective" one. Nothing wrong with that, unless you're in the habit of mistaking your truth for the truth.

We're not spending much time on what a mediocre photo is the one that adorns the Venice front, or what a genuinely awful story* it accompanies. I'm not sure those concerns make that much difference -- at least, technical quality itself shouldn't make you change your mind about the ethics of photo play. But the quality issues do speak to a certain incoherence, which goes to the problem above. I really don't know what I'm supposed to be seeing. The story's almost all blotter, no context. If there's some higher good to be served by the photo, no one's making a case for it. "We've got a picture of dead dogs" is a statement of fact; it's not an explanation of what the picture is, and it's not a justification for running it. If I'm going to yank people's chains over breakfast, I'd like to have a stronger reason.

A long time back, I had one of those occasional copydesk-vs.-assigning-desk arguments with a great good friend of many years' standing. His conclusion:** "You get paid to keep stuff out of the paper; I get paid to put stuff in the paper." I tend to put it differently: I get paid -- or did, back in those days -- to make sure that everything going into the paper has a reason. So I'm not really trying to argue the dogs off the front page. I'm suggesting they had no reason to be there in the first place.

Opposing views, as always, are welcome.

* Look, spellcheck isn't a very smart tool, but at least it'll tell you that the cop's name is spelled two different ways.
** Constructed from memory; kids, don't try this at home.

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Blogger Old Word Wolf said...

The Venice editor writes:
1. ... the photo was visually compelling.
2. The photo helps drive home the consequences of the actions of a man with little regard for human or canine life.
3. The photo showed no blood or gore ... it's only from the words on the page ... that anyone would know the dogs are dead and not sleeping.

I'm not making this up.

10:55 PM, August 13, 2009  
Blogger Old Word Wolf said...

I overlooked one: asked by a reader, "What do I tell my child?" editor suggests using "this as a teacheable moment..."

11:01 PM, August 13, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Sigh. I propose that as a general rule, if someone has to proclaim that a photo is "visually compelling," it ain't. Hard to see it being a justification, even if it had been true.

11:42 PM, August 13, 2009  
Blogger Venice Florida! dot com said...

I would have printed it. I just would have run different cutlines:

Welcome to Venice: Don't f**k with us or we'll shoot your dogs.

Police deny culpability in dog slayings: "We didn't want to shoot the dogs -- Sue Lang made us do it"

Mayor on dead dogs: "As God as my witness, I thought pit bulls could fly!"

Ogden Edls' first and only album is finally re-released by Rhino Records with bonus remixes and a new cover.

Tired of getting in trouble for attempting to shoot each other, Venice cops open fire on their own trained police dogs.

City's Parks and Rec staff mean business: Pick up your poop at the paw parks... or else!

New menu item set for debut at the Marco Polo Restaurant.

5:46 PM, August 14, 2009  

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