When deciding to run an open-casket photo, picture editors matter
As news organizations debated their lead image options yesterday during the first of a two-day public viewing for slain Senator and pastor Clementa C. Pinckney, a key voice was silent in many newsrooms: The picture editor.
Given the magnitude of this story and the historical significance, many publications and news sites presented the open casket public viewing prominently.
Sadly, many news organizations have eliminated or consolidated the role of picture editors and worse yet, lots of online companies never think to integrate the role of visual advocates.
In this era of fierce competition for web traffic and single copy sales -- visuals are key.
The sensitive and impactful decisions involving visual presentation have never been more demanding for media companies.
On Monday, a series of pictures documented by the Associated Press's Charlie Neibergall showing 2016 Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at a "Celebrate the 2nd Amendment Event" last weekend triggered a social media firestorm. It's because of what I would describe as an insensitive juxtaposition: The photos included images of guns on a wall in the background, making it appear as if a pistol was pointed at the Senator's head.
Good picture editing is guided by a blend of visual skill, journalistic judgment, compassion and the ability to consider viable alternatives, Sue Morrow, assistant director of multimedia at The Sacramento Bee, told Poynter.
"The Bee always talks about using body pictures before we publish. This is clearly a public scene, which did not feel insensitive to most of us. We asked talked about the cultural aspect of open casket as well…We considered that this scene is a visual reportage that advances critical storytelling for this story," she said.
The Bee included the open casket photographs in its online gallery and on the front page of the Thursday print edition.
Morrow explained why the Bee chose to publish a cropped version from a very wide picture: "I thought it was a good compromise between too tight (which eliminated needed context and information) and too wide as not to read well in print. It shows it's a public event with a diverse public filing through to pay their respects."
In the course of such editing conversations, cropping a photograph is every bit the same as cropping a paragraph. The visual editor is also looking to refine focus and increase clarity. The removal of elements in the composition equates with the elimination of unnecessary words.
Boyzell Hosey of The Tampa Bay Times offered a different perspective for only using the open-casket photographs in the paper's online edition and electing to use what he called, "the most compelling image of the day" in the print edition.
The Times chose a Getty Images photograph of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley being hugged as she and other lawmakers watched South Carolina Highway Patrol Honor Guard prepare to carry the Pinckney's coffin to lie in repose at the Statehouse Rotunda.
"I knew early in the day that the photos coming out of South Carolina would be a strong if not a definite contender for our 1A centerpiece photo. When the photos started appearing over the wires I knew it would be hard to argue against the most compelling imagery of the day. I actually didn't have to fight too hard because there wasn't really anything else competing," Hosey said in an email.
Both Morrow and Hosey agree that there were many strong alternatives to consider including an image Sen. Pinckney's wife and two daughters.
Fortunately, it did not require an act of God or Congress to get a body picture in the paper -- often the standard when it came to publishing funeral coverage photographs. These two pictures editors' voices mattered.
Picture Editing 101: Essentials and Ethics (August 2015)
Last week, 35 visual editors, representing five countries gathered at the Kalish Visual Editing Workshop to hone their skills in the areas of visual decision-making, articulation and presentation.