Balancing a need to know and a need to respect

Dozens of readers called this week to tell us how pleased they were with our coverage of the tragedy following the 7.0 earthquake in Haiti.

The coverage resonated with readers on both intellectual and emotional levels. We know we live on top of several significant geologic faults, and we worry that some of the older homes in Utah could pancake in a mighty earthquake. I am sure many of us checked our 72-hour kits as we read about the tragedy in our own hemisphere. We also have Haitian-born people who live and work here, so the pain of those families trying to get word on their families touched us.

Easily the toughest decisions a newspaper has to make in this kind of coverage are choosing the photographs to accompany the stories. But the decision-making does not start with the newspaper; it starts with the photo editor of The Associated Press, a wire service that provides much of The Tribune’s national and foreign news. Jim Collins, chief of AP’s New York Photo Desk, blogged this week about choices he made among the photographs submitted by photographers:

“Some of the more difficult decisions an AP photo editor must make when working on a story as calamitous as Haiti’s earthquake is to select photos for transmission that fully illustrate the scale of human suffering without being excessively graphic.”

Discussing one photo taken by Gregory Bull at the morgue in Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of bodies lay strewn outside, Collins wrote:

“It’s particularly shocking, but it must be shown to convey the magnitude of the tragedy. The number of dead is so vast. Corpses are merely left near the morgue, not in it. … [The photo] captures a moment. We see the man and woman standing in the middle of the frame, surrounded by the dead, perhaps searching for loved ones.”

After the photographs were transmitted to AP member newspapers, Tribune editors have some decisions to make. Taking into consideration the demographics of Utah readers as well as the need to convey accurately the dimensions of the tragedy, editors discussed the kinds of photos to use. For instance, editors thought it was important to use a shot like the one on Friday’s front page to show the physical damage as well as the toll in human lives. The photo shows several rows of bodies covered in white sheets as well as family members standing around in a half circle. The right-hand corner of the photo shows collapsed buildings.

Each front page photo also is chosen with this in mind: How will parents be able to explain this photo to children?

Warnings of graphic content inside were used on the front page and on the home page of the Web edition.

Tribune Photo Editor Susan Cohen looked at thousands and thousands of images from Haiti this week. She measured each one for the amount of information it conveyed versus how disturbing the image might be. The final arbiter was Editor Nancy Conway.

Deciding what photos would be used was not the only problem. Assistant Photo Editor Jeremy Harmon went over each photograph checking for nudity or anything else that could be humiliating. No one wanted to steal even more dignity from people who already had suffered such indignity.

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