Archive for February 23rd, 2009

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Public Domain Horror: Scared to Death

February 23, 2009

This is a weird one. It’s Bela Lugosi’s only colour film, a 1947 B-movie horror anti-classic that features an unusual storytelling structure: a dead girl tells the audience how she ended up on a mortuary slab.

She’s being haunted, as it turns out. But as the story unfolds, we meet a strange travelling magician (Lugosi) and his dwarf companion. Sometimes a face appears in the window … but I’m getting ahead of myself. It would be better if you just watch it.

I can tell you now that you will cringe at some of the acting. The production values are pretty shaky. But there’s a surrealistic use of colour at work here, something Argento would later adopt as his own. I’ve always found lurid colours to be as effective as high-contrast black-and-white when it comes to crappy horror movies.

Like other instalments in my Public Domain Horror series here at the Weather Station, that YouTube clip up top is your intro; this link will take you to the rest of the film. Enjoy.

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Editors Write Stupid Headlines

February 23, 2009

Writing headlines is a real art form. Editors have to get the point of the story across in a few words, using a strange form of language called headline-speak, and make it fit the layout. Wit is good, cliche is bad, and bad puns, while frowned up on, are all too common.

Here’s a funny blog post featuring a few real howlers.

Sometimes I miss writing headlines, but to be honest, it was my least favourite part of the job. It’s harder than you think. The headlines featured above run the range of mistakes, though, from wrong to stupid to obvious to lacking in basic logic.

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When Newspapers Go Too Far

February 23, 2009

Here’s a question for you: Should the media have the right to publish or broadcast any image? Anything at all?

My first response is yes. That’s not to say media, and for the sake of this discussion, let’s stick with newspapers, necessarily should print any image. But the right should be maintained. That’s been my position for the 20 years I’ve worked in daily newspapers. Editors should have the right to print anything, but also the right to decide what’s appropriate.

I’ve had to make that decision in the past. In one case, we had a compelling photograph of a missing person’s body being recovered from a river. It was a gripping, newsworthy photo, showing nothing more than the victim’s fingers, but we debated whether to run it. In the end, we didn’t.

But we could have.

Editors are faced with that decision every day. Shocking images, disturbing images and dangerous images are common. When Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed at the Super Bowl, many newspapers ran the image untouched. Others covered up the breast with a black bar. That’s where a difference in editorial philosophy comes into play; many newspaper professionals, myself included, believe running an altered photo is a form of fraud. If it can’t be published unchanged, don’t publish it.

The reason I’m thinking about this today is because of what’s going in in Austria. The trial of Josef Fritzl, the evil bastard who kept a secret incest family in a bizarre dungeon under his home, is about to begin. His victims — his daughter Elisabeth and six children he fathered with her — are living in a quiet, unrevealed location somewhere in Austria. Few photos of the family have been released, and none taken since April, when the crime was discovered and the victims released into daylight for the first time in 24 years.

However, a Fritzl relative has reportedly sold the victims’ location to the media. A couple of weeks ago, the UK tabloid The Sun — it’s to newspapers what manure is to food — tracked the victims down and ran a two-page spread of photos of Elisabeth and one of her daughters shopping.

Where’s the news value there? It doesn’t exist. But that’s the way the Sun operates. In fairness, the paper did blur the women’s faces, and agreed to not distribute copies within Austria, where crime victims’ rights are fiercely protected and people have a say over whether their images can be published. And the photos were never placed online. For the most part, they’ve vanished.

Until last week. A trashy Austrian newspaper called Osterreich re-published the Sun photos, in Austria. Changes were made. The women’s clothing was digitally altered, and their faces blocked out. But still, it was a bad decision.

What made it worse was Osterreich’s explanation: it published the photos to illustrate what a bad idea it was for the Sun to publish the photos. What? That’s idiotic. That’s the kind of response I might expect from a first-year journalism student, or someone who works in TV news. Not from supposed actual journalists.

So this has forced me to revise my original stance on this issue. I’ve been reading about Austria’s privacy laws, which are pretty powerful. In fact, it’s those laws that allowed Fritzl to get away with a lot of his crimes; he was convicted of rape in the 1960s, but his record was cleared after 15 years, in accordance with privacy laws. This allowed him to “adopt” the children he fathered with his daughter, and social services agencies had no idea this guy was a pervert.

But those laws give citizens a right we don’t have here: the right to determine how the media uses their image. Other countries have that right, as do residents of Quebec, in a slightly different form. But in Ontario, where I have always worked, photographs are the property of the person who took them, not the person in them. Every editor has taken that phone call: “Why did you publish my photo?” And every editor has explained why.

Journalists are human. We do what we do, but we don’t always like it. I can tell you that after attending the ramp ceremony for my cousin, who was killed in Afghanistan three years ago, I had a different take on those long-lens photographs taken of grieving families in those circumstances. I continued to use them, because soldiers continue to fall over there, but I felt differently about it. Every editor I’ve met or worked with, with the exception of one heartless slug, has discussed this same moral dilemma with me at least once. It’s a tough job. But there are times the decision has to be made, times when the news outweighs the emotion.

That’s when the photo is news, though. Stealthy pictures of two women, women who have been victims of one of the most horrendous crimes in history, have no place in print. The Sun’s editors, shameless as they are, were wrong to run them. Osterreich, though, is the worst offender.