Publishing photographs: How ST decides

TASTE and sensitivity in the use of pictures is a matter photographers and editors of The Straits Times grapple with routinely. Each day, we select for publication about 80 to 100 photographs from among the hundreds taken by our photographers or supplied by wire agencies, readers or other sources. It is a painstaking task, and often, difficult decisions have to be made relatively quickly regarding the choice of pictures. And readers do not always agree with those decisions. A photograph on the front page of The Straits Times last month caught the attention of ST reader John Stuart. It showed a fatally wounded Egyptian police general being carried away after a bombing in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. Mr Stuart, took issue with the publication of the picture which he found professionally distasteful and insensitive.

Citing the American national code of photographers, he stated that no reputable newspaper should publish an identifiable picture of a dead or dying person, as we did in publishing the picture of the Egyptian police general. Mr Stuart, who had worked as a journalist and photographer in the United States and resides currently in Singapore, noted that no major America newspaper would publish such pictures. To buttress his view, he cited  the American National Press Photographers Association's Code of Ethics which states in part: "Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see."

This is an excellent guideline which ST's newsroom editors agree with; in fact, we practise it every day. In many cases, we would refrain from publishing pictures which show clearly the face of a dead or dying person, provided there is no compelling reason in the public interest to use them. For instance, one of our reports on the current crisis in the Ukraine on April 24 described a shootout during which three men were killed. One picture which came through the wires showed a body in a coffin, the face clearly visible. We decided against publication  and opted for a less striking picture where the body was not visible. That was a fairly clear-cut case. On the other hand, the picture of the dying Egyptian police chief was less clear-cut. While a morbidly curious reader could form a fairly good idea of how the victim looks, most ST readers would have been struck less by the look, than the drama of the panic and desperation surrounding the movement informed by the picture which the photographer captured; and this latter point convinced us to use it. The picture told our readers in the best way possible about the consequences of this particular outbreak of violence in the Middle East.

There are grey areas here - and in many other situations - which call for editorial judgment. Much as we agree with the view that special consideration should be accorded to the vulnerable, it is not possible to subscribe to a blanket ban on publishing images that show the face of a dying or dead person, as some readers would prefer. We believe that the decision to publish such a picture should be approached on a case-by-case basis. If the victim is a prominent newsmaker or a key official, the public's right and need to see, as well as the considerable implications of the tragedy involving the newsmaker, may well override the considerations of personal intrusion.

One instance was the picture of a fatally-injured  American ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens caught in the horrific terrorist attack against the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya two years ago. Mr Stuart took issue with the publication of this photograph as well and wondered whether ST practised a policy of using pictures of only foreign victims but not of Singaporeans. We don't. While a strict observance of the code would deny the use of such a picture, many major newspapers published it because of the international implications of the attack. The picture of Ambassador Stevens rescued finally, albeit tragically, resonated because it described - more than  the proverbial thousand-word description could - the horror and cruelty of the terror attack on an internationally recognised sanctuary like an embassy. The ambassador was the fatal victim and the US embassy was the target in this instance. But the picture drove home the message to law-abiding citizens everywhere that terrorism recognises no legal boundaries; it also suggests why terrorism must be rooted out, or suffer the tragic consequences.

Like The Straits Times, major American publications such as the Los Angeles Times published the picture of Ambassador Stevens. While America's leading mainstream paper, the New York Times did not use the picture in its print edition, it published the photograph in its online edition, which drew the criticism of the US Government. The US Government sought to have the picture removed but NYT refused and its associate editor Phillip Corbett explained: "Such decisions are never easy, and this one was harder than most. But this chaotic and violent event was extremely significant as a news story, and we believe this photo helps to convey that situation to Times readers in a powerful way. On that basis, we think the photo was newsworthy and important to our coverage."

Where The Straits Times draws a line is when the picture is about blood and gore. If a picture's sole value is that it is crude and gruesome, we ban it. We are not alone in adopting such a policy. Many other major newspapers around the world do as well, despite the constant persistence of alternative media, especially online, in ignoring this line in the sand. Our job is to report major, dramatic news events well while being sensitive to family members of victims and never to come across as trying to sensationalise an event. We sometimes receive requests from families to not publish pictures of their grief, and we often accede. At times, we know we will upset some family members and readers. Every picture published involves a judgment call. One of our guiding principles is to err on the side of caution. Sometimes we still get it wrong. That is a key reason we keep our dialogue open with ST readers who see what we sometimes do not. We are grateful when ST readers point out instances where we have let our guard down. Their constructive feedback makes us relook our assumptions and processes continuously and helps us to improve our product.