HARPER: Making the call on a graphic scoop

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Two of my former students recently found themselves caught in a drive-by shooting in Kensington, a neighborhood in North Philadelphia.

Sarah Fry and Brad Larrison were working on a documentary about the neighborhood, one of the roughest in the city.

“The driver hit the van that I am crouching next to for cover, right in front of me, not two feet away,” Ms. Fry reported. “The victim’s head smashed into the window and there was smoke everywhere.”

With her left hand, she dialed 911. With her right hand, she documented what had happened with her camera. Mr. Larrison shot video.

Ms. Fry and Mr. Larrison contacted me about posting the material at bit.ly/16f4Cah on philadelphianeighborhoods.com, which I help run. The photographs and video display the shock of the onlookers and the body of a young man; the coverage is not for the faint of heart.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics reads in part that journalists should “clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.”

Reporters and editors must determine what to cover, how to report on a story and whether to publish a story. Sometimes those calls are easy; sometimes they are not.

Is it appropriate to publish such graphic material? My colleagues and I determined it was in this case because the visuals captured what happened. All too often these crimes — if they even are covered — end up as a paragraph or two in local newspapers or broadcasts.

In fact, several people applauded our publication for running the material, particularly since it showed what happened in an undercovered and underserved community like Kensington, which we report about on a continuing basis.

Should we have digitally masked the victim’s face? Here is what the National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics states: “Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.”

I have had the misfortune of covering a number of stories that involved death: the tragedy in Jonestown, Guyana; the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in Beirut; and the attack against the U.S. Marine compound in Lebanon. These events left a total of more than 2,000 dead. Looking at coverage of the Boston Marathon, I found few instances of victims’ faces being digitally masked from view in the four news events.

Edward Trayes, my colleague at Temple University and an accomplished photographer, has taught photojournalism for many years. “The story is unsettling and one can empathize with loved ones and families affected,” he said. “A good test in such cases seems to be along the lines of ‘redeeming social value.’”

We applied that standard, to Mr. Larrison’s video, and nearly 20,000 people saw the material.

How should we respond to complaints from the family to remove the photographs, complaints that came with a statement that legal counsel had been retained?

Even though we are sensitive to the family’s emotions, we decided that the public had an overriding need to see what happened. From a legal standpoint, the shooting occurred in a public place, with no expectation of privacy, and any lawsuit would seem to have no apparent standing.

I did place a warning about the graphic nature of the material, which I consider good journalistic practice to make certain people know what they would be seeing.

The police charged a man in the crime; the photos likely will play a role in any prosecution.

We believe we made the right decision to run what happened on a city street on a relatively typical day when one young man died.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com.

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