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.



  1. This is a tough one for me as I’ve been on the receiving end of those cameras. When my cousin passed away in a fire a few years back, I was caught on film at her funeral, crying and huging her father. There was nothing particularly newsworthy about the event other then the continuation of the report about the fire, but it was a public interest story on a slow news week. I understand the needs of the news people but I just found it really invasive and wish our privacy had been respected.

  2. I Want to see these photos. Where are they? where can we find a copy of the sun. We want to see what they look like.

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