Story Behind the Cover: Why We Used the Photo
Our decision-making process at Super Express was painful, but fairly straightforward. We heard the news Friday morning: Polish TV correspondent Waldemar Milewicz had been killed in Iraq.
We listened. We talked and scratched our heads wondering what this story was really about and how we ought to play it.
That it would be our cover, however, was obvious from start. Then came the AFP pictures. They stunned us into a long silence. My deputy, Tomasz Lachowicz, could not hold back tears.
My other deputy, Maria Lesnikowska, who heads our main news-gathering operation and that Friday was in charge of the Saturday paper, instantly felt that we should use on the cover one of the shots that showed the body in the bullet-shattered car.
The photo editor on duty argued against it. Typically, it is photo guys who are pushing harsh stuff; Maria tends to be more conservative. At the moment I was upstairs in some publishing meeting. They called me in to arbitrate.
My instant reaction was that we MUST use the photo that showed the body, and the face of our colleague, on the cover. Maria and I and a bunch of other newsroom types spent the following three hours trying to articulate all possible reasons NOT to run it.
The picture that we selected (and that eventually showed on our cover) seemed to have an incredible emotional hold. It presented the victim intact. At peace, recognizable, and true to the man we knew (sometimes bodies look strange; this wasn't the case here). The picture was purposeful: Milewicz was Poland's most recognizable war correspondent who got killed at a war that, with alarming speed, was becoming Poland's nightmare.
The picture was telling the story with terrifying eloquence. I could think of no other material from Iraq that came near this, at least as far as Poland's particular interests are concerned.
We had to use it.
By the 7:15 p.m. deadline, we had asked ourselves and answered (the best we could) all the ethical and professional questions that were later hurled at us by our critics. We were fully aware that by putting a close shot of a body on the cover we were violating a sensitive taboo. We knew that showing Waldek's face might shock many of our readers. We still thought that the cover defended itself, that it stood for a greater value: telling the truth of this story as fully as possible without disrespecting the death of our colleague.
I'd like address the allegations that we used this photo for commercial reasons. We printed 415,360 copies of the paper Friday night and Saturday morning. Our circulation manager said he believed that we could increase the press run by at least 20,000 copies, given intense reader interest in the death My instant reaction was that we MUST use the photo that showed the body, and the face of our colleague, on the cover.of Milewicz, a celebrated TV correspondent. Because we were limited by the number of pre-printed supplements, however, we were unable to increase the run. We also removed the advertising that usually appears on the cover, as well as promotion for a reader contest we run in the Warsaw edition of the paper.
I'm not looking for sympathy for lost revenue. I just want to set the record straight about the immediate commercial consequences of our decision.
More significant to us, in the long run, is reader reaction. A tabloid like Super Express always pays a lot of attention to that. And so far, at least, in telephone calls, e-mail, and other communications, the overwhelming majority is telling us they approve of the decisions we made.
We knew that some of our pals in the media would be angry. Waldek was their friend. We expected them to come down on us. What really stunned us was the way that they have played it. Their criticism has been shallow. It hasn't gone beyond broad generalities of ethics and decency. They haven't bothered, I suppose, to think the matter through.