Picture Homicide: A “Crucial Sense of Reality”
It was just after midnight on the 30th of June, 1994, and Lawrence Jackson had finished his late shift at the Virginian-Pilot when his pager went off. "I had a feeling that this was it," recalled the young photojournalist.
He had been preparing for the call. He and his colleague, police reporter Mike Mather, had spent more than a year working on a project with the Virginia Beach Police Department. With murders on the rise, Mather had suggested that the newspaper try to help readers understand the magnitude of the problem by following the next murder investigation from beginning to end. They had reached the beginning: A quadruple homicide investigation was underway at the Witchduck Inn in Virginia Beach.
When he arrived at the scene, Jackson, nervous and wondering how much access he would get, spoke to emergency services workers waiting outside.
"They asked me if I had ever seen horror movies," Jackson said.
"I said, 'Sure.'"
"Did it bother you?" they asked.
"Then you will be fine."
The scene inside was gruesome. A pool of blood blotted the floor where two victims, still clinging to life, had been loaded onto stretchers and taken away. Jackson walked around the bar, where the other two victims were in clear view. "I was numb," he said. "My adrenaline was pumping and I just did my job. All I could think was, 'shoot first.' I had been preparing for this for some time."
The first shots bothered him. "It was a difficult ethical choice to make," Jackson said. "Should I take these pictures?"
He returned to the office alone and produced more than a dozen prints.The first image troubled him so much that it was difficult to print it. Captured in those first few frames was a bloody corner of the room where the bar's owner lay on the floor and a patron sat slumped over the bar. Both had been shot in the head. It was a stark image; the kind that seldom makes it into the newspaper.
"In my heart I felt that the picture was important," Jackson said. "For me, it brought the reality of this terrible crime home. The story was incomplete without it."
The Pilot team had time to make a decision. To gain the open access that got Jackson beyond the yellow police tape and would help Mather write a more detailed story, the newspaper, in cooperation with police officials, had agreed to withhold any of the story's details and photos obtained by Mather and Jackson until the case had been fully prosecuted. That would take more than a year. Another reporter, acting independently from the team, would report the story's daily developments.
There were other conditions laid down before Jackson and Mather got the Witchduck call:
- No juvenile cases.
- A suspect had to have been identified by police.
- The homicide unit would pick the case and contact Mather.
The police investigation and prosecution lasted until July, 1995. During that time, Jackson and Mather could not share their findings with newsroom managers, having agreed not to discuss the investigation with anyone until the case had been closed. The photographs, Jackson said, "haunted me."
Less than 24 hours after the murders, a fired bar waitress and her friend were arrested and charged with killing the four. The judicial process kicked, but it wasn't until July 11, 1995, that the final guilty verdict was read.
As the Pilot staff neared publication of its year-long project, Editor Cole C. Campbell, wanting to make an informed and inclusive decision, brought families of the victims into the on-going conversation about Jackson's picture.
"We approached the families to gain their input and hear their voices, not to seek approval," Campbell said. The two families took opposite sides. One objected strongly. The other, Campbell said, felt that "this was real and we needed to publish the photos."
Shortly after the final verdict, Campbell called one last meeting. He gathered a small group of staffers to talk about the merits of the photograph and presentation alternatives.
He grabbed a large white flip chart, assembled many of the people involved in the project, and led a newsroom discussion about the picture. Jackson was included in the conversation via speaker phone.
The meeting focused on four key points: Privacy, taste, news value and potential harm.
"I wanted to bring folks together and to discuss our high standards," Campbell said. "The process here is what made this a success. I did not want the 'dead body edict' to get in the way of meaningful journalism."
For Bob Lynn, the Assistant Managing Editor for Visual, "there was never any doubt in our minds about running the photo. The challenge was how to best present the difficult image. This was big for the community and the paper. It was the worst in Virginia Beach history."
The matter of news value was clear: "the worst in Virginia Beach history." Having spoken to the victims' families, the staff could make an informed decision about the privacy issue. Taste and harm could be addressed in layout.
The photo ran as part of a three-picture page, in black-and-white at the bottom of an inside page. "We put it at the bottom so that if someone saw the picture and recoiled, they could work around it and still read the story," Campbell said.
"And there were other conditions for using it. We made the picture a little smaller than originally planned so that we would not make it so intrusive. Also, you couldn't see the faces of the victims. You couldn't see the grotesque features of the bodies. It wasn't in color, so you didn't see splashes of red.
"It was not intended to be an attention-getting photograph. It was a storytelling photograph."
Readers were warned in a Page 1 blurb that the stark picture awaited them on Page 10. A column by Campbell explained the newspaper's reasoning to readers.
"We included one explicit crime scene photo, inside the paper, because it forms the emotional center of this report -- the horror inflicted by the callous taking of human life," Campbell wrote.
"We made this decision after considerable review and discussion among reporters, photographers and editors. We know the photo will offend some readers even as it enlightens others. We know its publication will intrude into the private realm of the victims' families. . . .
"Our job, in the end, is to publish the news in a context that makes it meaningful. When we looked at the report without this photo included, the package lost a crucial sense of reality."
(Editor's note: Will Corbin, Vice President and Editor of the Daily News in Newport News, Va., has tackled an issue similar to that at the Pilot.