Shooting photos after shooting dicey business

There was blood in the snow last Sunday morning at a fraternity house near Youngstown State University.

It was the residue of a horrific attack at an after-hours party on Feb. 6, when two men indiscriminately sprayed bullets into the house, leaving one man dead and 11 people wounded, police say.

The house and the blood were there for Plain Dealer readers to see the following day, in a photo that ran with the continuation of the Page One story on page A8, on the back of the first section.

For some readers, the color photo was too much — always a chance when we publish crime scene photos that might make some people uncomfortable. We didn’t get an outpouring of complaints, but we got a few, such as this from Nancy O’Dell of Parma, who e-mailed that she was “horrified.”

“Not sure what someone was thinking by including such a graphic photo,” she wrote. “It was in extremely poor taste.”

The Plain Dealer does not ordinarily cover routine crime stories in Youngstown, which is outside our primary coverage area. But this was anything but routine, so two reporters were assigned to the story and photographer Lynn Ischay went to the scene.

By the time Ischay arrived, the house was deserted, but there was plenty of evidence that something awful had happened there.

“I’ve seen much worse at crime scenes,” she said, “but this was just eerie because there was no one around, just gray and monotone, and you had all these splotches of blood around. Blood was everywhere . . . in the snow, on discarded boots and on these beautiful earrings that were just flung in the blood on the snow.”

Ischay said the photo that ran Monday, with a trail of blood traced from the front door to a larger splotch where the trail ended at the sidewalk, wasn’t the most graphic she had. But she thought it told the story. “It pretty much tells you what happened right away, that somebody got really hurt there. Actually, a dozen somebodies.”

I thought the photo was unblinking but not offensive. If we tried to always adjust our sights so that our stories and photos would never offend the most squeamish of readers, we would leave a lot of news out of the paper. But, of course, everyone has a different definition of what constitutes a troubling photo. One editor I spoke with wished the photo hadn’t run, and another didn’t dispute running it, but wished it had appeared in black and white.

Plain Dealer Editor Debra Adams Simmons called the photo “an appropriate reflection of the scene of the crime,” but acknowledged a sense of responsibility for the concerns that some readers have.

“We walk a fine line in trying to balance our coverage of news events with the comfort level of our readership,” she said. “I know there are people who might find blood offensive, but I didn’t think the photo was alarming.”

‘Semi’ should be automatic: People writing about guns and ammunition have lots of opportunities to make mistakes — particularly when the writers are unfamiliar with the subject.

One of the most frequent errors has to do with the difference between automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Simply put, when the trigger of an automatic weapon is depressed, it fires a stream of bullets that stops only when the trigger is released or the ammunition runs out. A semi-automatic weapon fires just one bullet with each pull of the trigger.

A couple of letter writers — one on the editorial page and one in the page A2 Plain Speaking feature — recently seemed to reflect a common misperception: In criticizing the legality of extended gun magazines such as the one that was used in the Jan. 8 attack in Arizona, they both mentioned them being used with automatic weapons.

The weapon used in Arizona (as well as those used in the Youngstown tragedy above) was a semi-automatic. Automatic weapons are difficult to obtain, very expensive and illegal in 10 states (although legal in Ohio and Arizona). The weapon used in Arizona, the Youngstown tragedy above, and almost every other case that makes the news, is semi-automatic. People who call them automatic weapons have been watching too many Bruce Willis movies.

The Sunday TV book: Rarely a week goes by that I don’t hear from someone wondering why they got a Sunday paper without the TV Week supplement. Almost always, it turns out that they purchased their Plain Dealer at a newsstand.

As has been the case for more than three years, if the paper you got this morning was home-delivered, it included a TV Week. If you picked it up at a newsstand or out of a box, it did not. I’ve explained why in this space a couple of times. If you missed it, give me a call and I’ll tell you all about it.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Feb. 13, 2011.

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