Wick Communications

The photo I didn’t run

In Photography on 3 Aug 2017 at 2:50 pm

Last week, there was a murder in Half Moon Bay. Only it wasn’t a murder. And that last part further complicated an already difficult decision about whether to run a photo I knew would upset some people.

Some explanation is in order.

We don’t have many murders, thankfully. Maybe four in my dozen or more years here. So when arts reporter Sarah Greigo Guz called me one evening to say she stumbled onto a crime scene and the scuttlebutt was that there had been a murder, it was a big deal. We scrambled a news reporter and I made some social media posts, of course.

I also got a call from a local photographer, who said he had photos from the scene. I asked for them and he sent them, and my actual text back to him at the time was: “Wow.”

That is the most impressive photo above… Except I cropped out the “wow” part. Which is an unnatural act for a newspaper editor and required a lot of soul-searching on my part.

What you don’t see, off to the left, is a body under a white tarp. At the time, I was convinced I would run it full frame. That conviction changed over time.

First, I sent the photo around to Wick editors. I would say most people, about 60 percent of those who provided feedback, said they would run it for the same reasons I thought I would. It was big news, it occurred in public, there were likely already photos like it on social media. It wasn’t particularly gory. …

Those who argued against running it generally asked what the victim’s family would think. I don’t think that is the overwhelming consideration, frankly. I think our obligation is to the entire community and not to anyone who might be particularly sensitive for one reason or another. There are very good arguments for running a shocking photo when the occasion calls for it. Some shocking photos, like those from My Lai during the Vietnam war, change the course of history. Running the photo I had could cause people to petition local governments for safer neighborhoods, more police, better mental health services. For several days, I thought those issues paramount.

Then something happened. We talked to people in the neighborhood, including a witness. It turns out it might not have been a murder at all. Folks suggested the killing was in self-defense and even that the victim might have been suicidal. Then the district attorney released the man who had been the murder suspect.

That is when I decided to crop out the body. To my mind, there were at least two victims at that point, including the guy who spent the weekend in jail worrying that he was about to be charged with murder. I also thought the story became somewhat less newsworthy. It wasn’t a cold-hearted murder, apparently, but an argument gone wrong. I was less sure that publishing the photo with the body in it could elicit some positive change. City councilmen wouldn’t see it and decide we needed to spend more on police, and so on.

So I cropped it. And I’m still not sure it was the right thing to do. That is just the way it is sometimes in this business. Not every color photo is black and white.

— Clay



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