The Seattle Times was an afternoon paper in 1994 and the Nirvana lead singer’s suicide was breaking news. “It was a huge story,” retired Times executive editor Mike Fancher tells Romenesko. “Many readers didn’t understand how important it was for other readers, so we got a lot of criticism for putting it on the front page and covering it thoroughly. It was one of those ‘teachable moments,’ where you try to help readers understand each other better.” More from Fancher after the jump.
“My main anecdote [about that day] is about our decision to publish a picture taken through the window of the house where Cobain shot himself. Here is how I described the image in a column:”
The picture, taken through a window, shows Cobain’s right leg and right forearm and hand. A police officer is kneeling beside the body, taking notes.
A cigar box and some personal effects are on the floor, next to the body.
Although no blood is visible, the picture invites the imagination to lean in, look around the corner and see the full horror of what Cobain had done to himself with a shotgun. Without being gory, the photo is gripping.
To many readers it is also tasteless, intrusive, insensitive and gratuitous tabloid journalism.
“Back then The Times was a p.m. newspaper, and this was a breaking story. We chose not to use the picture by photographer Tom Reese that day, opting for another photo that showed only the house and the window into the room where Cobain shot himself, but without any sign of the body.
“After much discussion, we used the controversial photo on the front page the next day. My column explained the decision process:
The discussion didn’t take place immediately, but while the photo lay on a desk in the newsroom people were drawn to it. ‘There was a lot of standing and looking at the picture,’ commented one editor.
Quiet, thoughtful observations and concerns were voiced, as veteran journalists shared their own deeply mixed reactions. Everything that readers have expressed about the photo was felt in the newsroom that day…
As Reese expressed later, ‘There is a huge amount of emotional content in a picture like that.’
But emotion alone isn’t enough for us to publish objectionable material. Our test is whether an important journalistic purpose will be served.
In some ways the official conversation about whether to run the photo might have been secondary to the testimonial that had taken place around the photo desk. The picture has an arresting quality that says, ‘This is the truth. It isn’t pleasant, but this is what happened.’
In this case the overriding conclusion was that this picture met that test by establishing an essential reality about Cobain’s death. Our concern was that Cobain’s suicide would be romanticized by some – suicide, the ultimate high.
As one editor said, the photo showed, ‘This wasn’t cool, it was death and that’s the result of suicide.’”
On Twitter today, most of those noting the 17th anniversary of Cobain’s death include this observation: “I feel old.”