Seeing photos through readers’ eyes reveals images and responses that journalists sometimes overlook.
In photographs in which we, as journalists, saw danger, some readers saw deception. To an image depicting young Palestinian protesters running from fire, we heard reactions such as “Aren’t they too young to organize?” Where we saw truth, readers suspected a setup. When we published a picture of a colorful protest, readers wondered about the manipulation involved in getting this message out. When we saw sorrow, readers saw joy. Is the mother of a suicide bomber grieving? Or is she joyous that her son is now a martyr?
As this gulf in perceptions became apparent—through a handful of letters and calls that I received each week—I set out to evaluate the Arizona Daily Star’s Mideast photographic coverage. As the newspaper’s reader advocate, I would present my findings to readers and then create a forum so that the Star’s decision-makers could hear directly from readers. To fully open my eyes to the bias that some of our readers were seeing, I looked at more than 160 Associated Press photos.
Of the 900,000 people who live in metropolitan Tucson, about three percent are Jewish, and just under one percent is Muslim. The Star sells an average of 101,000 papers each day and 171,000 on Sundays. There were no organized advertising boycotts about our Mideast coverage, nor orchestrated circulation cancellations, as there have been in other communities. And for the most part, the complaints I received were courteous, friendly and constructive.
These reader complaints were enough to convince the paper’s top editors that it was time for a “gut-check” to look for ways that we could improve our coverage. Every newspaper can cover an issue better—whether by devoting more space, diversifying news sources, or presenting the news more effectively. To do so, however, requires a willingness to recognize what isn’t working. In 2001, the Star examined its gun coverage as part of the Associated Press Managing Editors’ National Credibility Roundtables Project, designed to bring news organizations and readers together to talk about credibility issues. Managing Editor Bobbie Jo Buel promised readers that the Star would examine its Mideast coverage next.
In 2001, we used wire photos from The Associated Press to convey to Star readers the war’s realities. We depend on these photographers to depict what is happening and to describe it in caption form. In my assessment of the photos of the Mideast that ran in the Star in 2001, I judged them on specific criteria. For example, did the photograph show the news of the day? And did it show Israelis or Palestinians in a positive, neutral or negative light?
Over the course of the year, the Star’s choice of photographs showed Israelis and Palestinians in a positive or neutral light at about the same rate, about 40 percent of the time. Of the 57 photos that showed either side in a negative light, 37, or 23 percent, showed Israelis in a negative light, and 20, or 13 percent, showed Palestinians in a negative light.
From this analysis we selected 15 images to form the springboard for interviews with the eight readers—suggested to us by others in the community—who agreed to take part in a two-hour roundtable discussion. I sent each participant the same packet of images and, before we met as a group, I heard impressions from each in an individual 90-minute meeting.
One of the photos I included was one from October 2001 that showed Israeli protesters holding signs with pictures of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Osama bin Laden, captioned in English “the twins.” This photograph ran in color on the front page. A reader had called asking, “If it were a Palestinian protest depicting Sharon as a twin with bin Laden, would that have been an 8” x 6” color picture on the front page?” Soon after, Newsweek reported that the Israeli government had spearheaded a move to ingrain this Arafat-bin Laden comparison. Another was a December 16 photo of Palestinian children, identified as protesters, running for cover as Israeli troops fire their weapons during a Gaza clash. However, there was no sign of a demonstration in the photo.
The week before the roundtable, I showed the same examples to the Star’s decision-makers—photo and news editors, Page One editors, and Editor and Publisher Jane Amari—and explained why each was included and what readers had said about them.
During the roundtable in April, my colleagues were asked to talk as little as possible. They were there to listen, not to voice their views. Readers talked about the impact of images of protest and of the massive destruction they saw when they looked at these photos. Over and over, readers said, “Show us the human side of the conflict.” As the discussion ended, the photo director asked that the Mideast photos we were considering that day be assembled so the readers could view the next day’s options. They seemed overwhelmed by the number of images we had to sort through. After viewing about a dozen images, they remarked upon how hard it must be to make our choices each night.
The Star’s promise from the start was to examine its coverage and listen to readers. Any change that might be instituted would be conveyed to them personally in writing and to the public in the Sunday reader advocate column.
Based on readers’ suggestions, the Star:
- Instituted trials of Christian Science Monitor and Reuters news services to broaden the possibilities for our news and visual coverage.
- Promised to publish photos that add a human dimension to the day’s events.
- Promised that every photo considered will be viewed by at least two sets of eyes and the different approaches to the day’s news discussed.
More than a dozen people not involved in the roundtable sent notes of appreciation or called to thank the Star for its efforts.
The roundtable heightened efforts to ensure fairness and accuracy and created a road map for us to use. Judgment based on that road map still can result in second-guessing. However, in the three months after the roundtable, the Star has received complaints only once about its photo selection. On June 19, more than 20 readers called to voice their outrage and dismay over a front page photo of Subhiah al-Ghoul grieving over her son, a suicide bomber who killed 19 people, including children, and wounded 55 others the previous morning in Jerusalem. A second photo of similar size was adjacent and showed a grieving Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with the bombed bus in the background.
Readers called the photo selection unbalanced and said that it looked as if the Star was glorifying the bomber’s actions. In their words: “That woman is only sad for her loss; she’s happy inside that all those kids died.” From another: “When I saw Wednesday’s front page, I thought you were saying ‘Screw the Jews; Hurrah for the murderers.’” A lone caller grasped that the two photos were chosen to show two sides grieving.
Teri Hayt, assistant managing editor for photography, design and graphics, oversees photo selection. In my June 23 column, she explained our decision in publishing these photographs: “There were several images of grieving relatives on both sides of the issue; most of the photos of the scene were too graphic to publish.
“In the end, I felt that we needed to show the grief and despair this war has created on both sides. Thus the side-by-side display of the mother whose son blew himself up and Sharon viewing the carnage visited upon his people again.
“Was this the right call? I thought so at the time. I knew regardless of how we displayed these images there would be strong reaction from both sides. Honestly, it doesn’t matter what images run, someone will be offended.
“They say hindsight is 20/20 so that morning after looking at our front I opened my copy of The New York Times and saw that they had a photo of the remnants of the bus. The image did not have any bodies visible, nothing really compelling about the image, but it did show the damage. And I thought that if I had to make the call over again I would have gone with a single photo of Sharon standing over the body bags with the bus in the background. That was the news of the day, another large loss of life the result of another suicide bomber. The war continues.
“We are not going to solve this conflict. I believe that we are being much more sensitive to both sides of the issue, but the fact remains that each side has suffered. Our job is to report this war and that means photos that are hard to look at. War is offensive to look at. I would hope that our readers trust we are making thoughtful decisions, not just putting the first photo we come across in the paper. I worry that we are being so sensitive to both sides that we are not covering the news story of the day.”
Debbie Kornmiller is the reader advocate for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, Arizona.