Beyond Taste: Editing Truth

When terror strikes, chaos reigns, people are maimed and killed. And eerie images linger in the minds and memories, making picture editing a challenging task.  


For many, El Pais photographer Pablo Torres Guerrero recently captured an eerie image that lingers.


The picture documents the shocked and injured victims being aided by rescue workers and bystanders along the tracks outside of the Atocha station after 13 backpack-loaded bombs were detonated, killing 190 people and injuring about 1,800 on March 11 in Madrid.


Guerrero’s picture, distributed around the world by Reuters, was subject to much scrutiny and was the subject of much discussion prior to publication because in the lower left corner of the picture’s foreground is a body part that medical experts identified as a femur.


In Western media, such issues are historically handled as taste concerns — questionable qualities or elements of the composition that may potentially offend the viewer.


Many newsrooms looked for ways to handle their taste concerns by editing the image.


Most American newspapers chose to crop the photographs, and Time magazine strategically placed type over the potentially offensive area.


Time magazine picture editor Mary Ann Golan recalls discussing this picture. “This was the best picture that we saw in terms of the scale and impact. You get a sense of the long focus and the — Oh my God! — how massive the impact and mayhem of the situation,” she said.


Golan shared that at Time, “we don’t have a general policy for bodies or body parts and handle each situation … considering matters of taste, respect for the wounded and dead, on a case-by-case basis. These pictures from Madrid are particularly gruesome. With this picture, I said, ‘Yeah it is a great photo and we are not taking it out,’ because that did come up immediately.”


Golan said “people outside the newsroom were talking about taking it out, but none of the … editors agreed.”


Lynn Staley, AME at Newsweek, selected altogether different pictures that were as graphic and showed dead bodies. “The most controversy was that there were relatively few images to choose from — there were a finite number of images.”


She said that the magazine used an image of a lone victim trapped in the rubble of a bombed-out passenger car.


“The opener of the body of the woman in the wreckage was one of the most beautiful, haunting, and amazing images that we had seen, and the second spread of the umbrellas was a perfect scene-setter to balance our coverage,” Staley said. But admits, the selection process is subjective. “To say that it a rational process, is an overstatement.”


“Our presentation was instructive, yes, in some ways, but our goal is not to shock,” Staley said.


Why crop?


Around the world, cropping is the accepted form of alteration or editing – the photographic equivalent of paraphrasing or ellipsis within the photographic narrative of a picture.

Papers from coast to coast chose to crop the image, emphasizing the material damage over the human toll.


Colin Crawford, assistant managing editor for photography at the L.A. Times, explained his paper’s decision to me by e-mail. “We cropped the photo mostly to bring the destruction of the train and the general chaos of the scene closer to the reader. That eliminated all of the empty space in the foreground and the human remains. I thought the image was stronger with the crop.”


Frank Folwell, deputy managing editor at USA Today, said by e-mail that his paper “felt it was important to run the photo and show the horror, but that it would be too grotesque to show body parts.”


“We did not consider using the body part because the crop sort of emphasized the length of the train,” said Alex Burrows, director of photography at The Virginian-Pilot. “Our policy is to red flag (to senior editors) anything that is a little too horrific — blood or body parts — to have discussions. We have all disciplines of people around the pod discussing the alternatives. We agreed the … crop was effective, but would never consider Photoshopping the image. We made it a less busy composition aesthetically.”


Cecilia Bohan, foreign picture editor at The New York Times, explains their crop.


Audience should always factor into the decision-making process, as it is the purpose of a free press to inform citizens and to maximize truth-telling through authentic reporting, while minimizing harm.“I remember showing the full frame and then cropping the image on the screen with a blank sheet of paper. We think that there isn’t a difference between a local life and a foreign life. We draw the line at news value on the foreign desk. A bus crash with no political activity involved we would see as gratuitous. There was news value in showing the world the results of — the terrorist — a hit of this magnitude.

“It is outrageous to take out essential content. We liked the photo and needed to give the image scale. I pretty much go from the gut, this is a tricky question and we should really talk about it more. This is a case-by-case decision, but we do talk about them,” Bohan said.


Michael duCille, picture editor at The Washington Post, felt that the picture needed to be seen in newspapers, and on the front page. The Post was one of the few American newspapers to publish the photo in color on its front page.


DuCille said that he stands by his paper’s decision to publish the full picture, even though he was not in the office that evening. “My argument when I have a picture like this that has some excruciating, gut-wrenching emotion, is incredibly gory, devastating, and is hard on the eye — I apply a scale that compares the news event, the situation, look for the overriding reason to present such a situation to the viewing public.”


“The event is so huge to the world that people needed to see its reality,” duCille said.


Around the world


Perspectives around the world on this particular photograph vary. In the version of the picture that appeared on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, the body part was digitally removed, as it was in The Sun, Times, and Daily Mail. What viewers and readers saw in place of the limb was a pile of rocks. This digital technique is called cloning and is easily done in Photoshop with little skill in no time.


Bob Bodman, picture editor at The Daily Telegraph, explained, “It was a fantastic photograph, the carnage of the bombing was amazing. The limb in the foreground was distracting, and I did not want to crop the image. It is not a huge problem for us to remove hands and things from the picture to clean them up … if you don’t change the context. We try not to show body parts.”


Noting the difference in culture and attitude, Bodman added, “The difference is a matter of interpretation that is key. We don’t do things the way you do in America … We do things differently here.”


Differently indeed. The Guardian‘s version changed the color of the limb from blood red to grey and — along with the elimination of the body part in other papers — prompted The London Independent to write a piece on the issue.


Quoted in the Independent, Paul Johnson, deputy editor for news at the Guardian, says “The photograph encapsulated the scale of this very human tragedy. It’s an extraordinary photograph that was just in the margins of what we could use on the front page, but in that left-hand corner was an identifiable body part. To my mind that put us over the threshold. We could have cropped it out, but someone came up with the suggestion that we bleed out the color. It is not perfect, by any means, but I felt it was the best solution all round because it didn’t eradicate anything from the picture.”


Sellar: “It is interesting to me that lately, readers have been less inclined to call and complain about gory pictures.”The Toronto Star also digitally adjusted the color saturation of the foreground element. Neil Ballantyne, chief picture editor at the Star, said on behalf of his paper, “We do not alter pictures beyond the normal color darkroom technology in ways that may mislead readers.”


But Don Sellar, ombudsman at the Star, had more to say. “I speak for myself and not the Star. This looked to me like a body part in the paper. This was the electronic equivalent there of (dodging) and I would not fault them for that.”


Sellar added that he does think that the Star, like many papers, “is fairly cautious about blood.”


One week after the page was published, Sellar reported that the paper had not received “a single call or e-mail about the photo,” and he thinks that readers are less inclined to call in. “Was I surprised that there were no reactions? Yes. I expected reaction.


“It is interesting to me that lately, readers have been less inclined to call and complain about gory pictures, and I have written about this and asked if readers’ tastes are changing and if they are more inured to blood and guts,” Sellar said. 

Both Reuters and El Pais managers confirm that no one called the picture desk in Washington, D.C., or the Madrid newsroom to ask for permission to alter the picture.


Gary Hershorn, Reuters’ news editor for pictures, for the Americas, explained via e-mail that Reuters “has a strong ethical stance that prevents any manipulation in the pictures we include in our service, but obviously once the picture gets distributed we cannot have any control of how a subscriber uses it. It states in their contract that they should not electronically manipulate a photo to change its editorial content.”


The great debate


When and how to publish graphic pictures is the subject of much debate, as is what justifies altering the editorial content of a photograph.


We at Poynter Online decided to offer an edited (cropped) version of the picture on our homepage and then give viewers the option of seeing more, including a comparison of how the image was treated around the world.


Audience should always factor into the decision-making process, as it is the purpose of a free press to inform citizens and to maximize truth-telling through authentic reporting, while minimizing harm.


If a picture is too gruesome for some audiences, a paper could decide not to print it. Here are some other options to consider:


• Use an alternative picture. Simply selecting another picture should be the first option.
• Cropping is an age-old and accepted practice. This is very much like paraphrasing or adding an ellipsis in a sentence.
• Placement and size is a major consideration. Must the picture be displayed on your cover and should it be published in black and white and not color?
• Selective toning and de-saturation are options. You can adjust the color and contrast in an isolated area.
• Blurring, black bars, and text can be placed in a selective manner.
• Distortion of the picture is another choice. That is, you can subtract and/or add editorial content within the frame of the photographic composition.
• Include written context to inform the viewer and reader about what they are seeing. Captions, photo credits, content label, sidebar stories, and editor’s notes are great vehicles for sharing information and building understanding. 


The power of a single image is enormous in such a visual society. So, whatever your decision, share it with your readers.


One Brazilian editor that instructed the limb to be removed from the image reportedly said that his only regret was not removing the limb, but not telling the reader that it had been removed.


Noted British scholar and picture editor Colin Jacobsen, of Falmouth University of Arts, shared his reaction via e-mail, “My general take on these matters is to ask whether the publication of gruesome images contributes in any way to our understanding of the event or is it just gratuitous? In the case of bombings like Madrid, the physical destruction graphically portrayed in the press might well lead readers to imagine how devastating the effects can be. Do they gain anything by seeing the remnants of human beings?”


It is also fair to ask whether there is an exotic standard being practiced in the newsroom, one that devalues the dignity and respect afforded to loss of life outside of one’s circulation community.

CORRECTION: Neil Ballantyne’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story, as was Don Sellar’s.

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