Publicizing Pictures of Dead Children Will Backfire on Gun Control AdvocatesBreaking News
tags: mass shootings, violence, journalism, Gun Violence, Columbine
John Temple was the editor of Denver’s Rocky Mountain News in April 1999, when Columbine High School was attacked by two students.
What can the press do to help stop mass shootings? This question haunts many journalists who struggle through the ritualistic cycle of news coverage that has become all too familiar after a massacre. Publishing photographs showing the grisly sight of slaughtered children is the latest answer from those seeking to move the public and politicians to act.
The former dean of UC Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, Ed Wasserman, argues that media, for reasons of taste and decency, have unthinkingly been “withholding from the public the pictures of the dead,” a practice he thinks should change. The former Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman, now the dean of Temple University’s journalism school, agrees, but adds that this should be done only “with the permission of a surviving parent.”
The reality, based on my experience, is not quite so simple.
There is no question that we can point to photographs that have changed public opinion. Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer whose extraordinary “Napalm Girl” photo helped build support for ending the Vietnam War, recently wrote a powerful piece in The Washington Post, headlined “A Single Photo Can Change the World. I Know Because I Took One That Did.” I believe he’s right.
But as someone who has thought deeply about how to cover school shootings since 12 students and a teacher were killed at Columbine High School when I was the editor of Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, I have a different answer.
Before I explain, let me note that I come to my views as someone who did choose to publish a haunting image of a dead student sprawled on the sidewalk outside the school, soda from a can he’d dropped trickling downhill near him, while other students crouched behind a car next to a police officer, his gun aimed at the school. A photo that appeared on front pages beyond Colorado and that we published large and in full color inside our newspaper the morning after the shooting. A photo that I did not seek the permission of the surviving parents to publish. A photo that I felt was essential to telling the terrible story of that day. A photo that we believed, or at least fervently hoped, would help prevent the same horror from ever happening again.
Our staff’s photos of the Columbine tragedy went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. The unforgettable front-page photo of two grieving students we ran the morning after the shooting is on the wall across from me as I write. I feel like I live with that day every day, and especially on mass-shooting days. Maybe one day some editors will have a picture of a dead child even more powerful than the one we published that will finally make a difference.