When you were the editor

“If I was editor, I wouldn’t last three weeks.”

“It takes talent to strike the right balance in publishing the daily news.”

“Some soul-searching choices to be made.”

“This little exercise, repeated hundreds of times a day in newspaper offices, has given me renewed respect for editors. Balancing factual content with appropriateness for the general public is a difficult and no doubt thankless task.”

That’s a small sampling of the many hundreds of thoughtful comments I received from the almost 1,700 readers from across Canada and abroad who participated in my annual You be the Editor challenge last week.

Here’s how readers weighed in on whether they would “publish” or “not publish” in the following judgments made by the Star’s newsroom last year.

1. A witness to a motorcycle fatality describes seeing body parts strewn on the highway, including “a severed head in a helmet.” Do you report these details?

55 per cent would not publish, expressing the view that such gruesome details are unnecessary: “Revealing these details to the public makes matters even more difficult for friends and relatives of the victim, and don’t add anything useful to the story,” Kit Moore said. I am with the majority here.

2. Do you publish the headline “Buddha-like child quits smoking” with this photo of Indonesian toddler Ardi Rizal?

77 per cent would not publish. “Buddha-like? Oh I get it, he’s fat like that quirky god from that region. It’s lame and unimaginative,” said Toronto’s Robb Davis. I love this pic but have to agree with the majority on that headline.

3. Nobel-prize nominee and anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott tells the Star that the town of Port Hope is sitting on a carcinogenic time bomb and all 16,000 residents should be relocated. Do you report this with the headline: “Warning: Port Hope a toxic time bomb; the only solution? Move”?

60 per cent would publish — but many suggested the headline went too far. “Report on Dr. Caldicott’s concerns but, tone down the attention-grabbing, ‘Enquirer-like’ headline,” Edith Leuverink said. I agree. As well, I think the Star fell short here in not delving further into the science behind Caldicott’s shocking claims.

4. In reporting on a hockey coach who was suspended for pulling his team following a racial slur against one of his players, do you publish the word or refer to “the n-word”?

60 per cent would not publish the word. “We know what you mean. Let’s not give racists the satisfaction of seeing the word spelled out,” Susan Willcox said. In line with its longtime policy on obscenity, the Star rightly did not use the offensive word.

5. Do you publish this photo in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake on Page 1 of the Sunday Star?

60 per cent would not publish this powerful pic on Page 1 of the Sunday paper. “Publish but not on Page 1,” David Carr said. “Parents have the right to some minor censorship of what lands face up ‘above the fold’ at the front door their children will open.” I agreed last year that the pic would be better played inside the paper. I’m not so sure now.

6. Do you publish this headline on Page 1: “Try her slut’s spaghetti” with a story about British cooking goddess Nigella Lawson’s recipe for pasta alla puttanesca, which she calls “slut’s spaghetti.”

69 per cent would not publish. Readers’ sensitivity to what many termed “the s-word” surprised me here. “No, a bit too vulgar,” Jim Purdie said. I would have published this.

7. A columnist writing about the World Cup match between Uruguay and South Korea, writes satirically that Uruguay is known for “plane-crash-related cannibalism.” Do you publish this reference to the 1972 Andes flight disaster?

84 per cent would not publish. “No, because it is in poor taste (I can do bad puns too),” Matthew Scott said. This reference sparked furious emails from hundreds in Uruguay and of Uruguayan background. The writer should have thought twice about making light of this painful history.

8. A new book about Canadian broadcasting icon Peter Gzowski reveals his secret son. You get an exclusive interview with the man. Do you publish this on Page 1?

59 per cent would publish. “This reveals that a Canadian icon was human, and the public can judge for themselves.” Douglas Cornish said. I agree. This exclusive piece was a terrific read and merited front-page play.

9. Two Toronto high-school students are suspended from a high-school track meet for fighting. A reporter videotapes the altercation. Do you publish the video and identify the youths?

80 per cent would not publish. “Kids fight at school sometimes. It’s not news unless someone gets killed. The public doesn’t need to bother with this high-school drama,” Jess Rathay said. I agree. In an age when what is printed lives online forever, I don’t think there was enough news value here to justify identifying these youths.

10. Do you publish this photo of U.S. President Barack Obama taken in 1980 when he was a college student as part of a pre-G20 “Portraits of Leaders” feature?

54 per cent would publish. “Obama’s portrait has an archival value and I think it reflects positively on him,” Jake Phillips said. Those in the other camp found this photo to be disrespectful to the U.S. president. This is an iconic image and I think publishing it in this context was brilliant.

11. An article about the death of a TTC collector who had been caught catnapping on the job in a photo that went viral online, reports that the incident caused the man great distress. Do you republish the photo in reporting on his death?

74 per cent would not publish. “No, you already wrote that the photo caused the man great distress, it’s only sensationalism to publish it again,” Barb Armstrong said. I’m with the strong majority.

12. A judge releases graphic photos shown in open court of convicted “sadosexual serial killer” Russell Williams. Do you publish this photo on Page 1 alongside a photo of Williams in full military uniform?

50 per cent would publish 50 per cent would not publish. “It is stark evidence of this man’s dual identity and the public has a right to know this, Loretta Landmesser said. Lydia Burton expressed what many readers told me when this photo was published: “In my opinion, this was the worst case of printing a picture that is extremely upsetting to your readers that the Star has ever done. I don’t need to see that in order to understand that the man was depraved.” This was a tough call but I think the newsroom did the courageous thing here.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star on Jan. 14, 2011.

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