Once in a while, television journalists find themselves in a quandary when it comes to reporting what happens and trying to protect the audience from indecency.
A common example that comes to mind involves instances of vandalism in which words of hate are spray-painted on other peoples’ property. When TV cameras encounter epithets like the N-word, that footage almost always ends up edited to “blur” out the words just enough to show something was written, without depicting exactly what was.
This week, as a judge sentenced an 18-year-old Ohio man to live in prison without parole for the killing of three students, TV news met another decency debate: the defendant showed up to his sentencing hearing wearing a white t-shirt on which he had written the word “Killer” in black magic marker, (similar to what he allegedly wore the day of the deadly shootings), then raised his middle finger to the families of his victims.
So when a teenager gives crime victims’ families the so-called “middle-finger salute,” what’s the decent thing to do?
There are two schools of thought involved in such a decision.
The first is that because the gesture is vulgar, it should be blurred or covered up, period. The media should err on the side of caution, describing the act but not showing it, effectively softening the blow to its audience in a way that unfortunately did not happen to the defendant’s targets.
The second is that because news is supposed to honestly depict what happened, it should show the callousness of the gesture to illustrate the reality of the act itself. Attached to this line of thinking is the notion that since there are few well-known finger gestures, from the position of the arm and hand and the expression on the young man’s face, the gesture itself would be clear, anyway, so if they’re going to show any part of the image at all, they might as well show it without editing.
CBS News ran a still from the incident on its website, but chose to edit the photo. ABC News, NBC News and Fox News did not use stills of the finger gesture on their respective sites, choosing other shots instead.
Some local stations across the country debated whether to show the gesture with or without blurring.
I’m curious about what you’d have done if you were news director and were faced with this shocking courtroom development.
Would you have run the photo with blurring or without? Or would you have run a different photo instead? Why or why not?