You’re working in The Opelika-Auburn News sports department late on a deadline Saturday night. You should be celebrating in your seat, even if you don’t care who won the big game your paper will blow out in Sunday’s paper.
The Auburn Tigers, the team your paper cares about, has held on to beat another Top 5 opponent with one of college football’s biggest plays of the year—with 90 second left in the game, Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell fumbles the ball inches away from the winning touchdown.
Your photographer is in the perfect position to capture the photo that other photographers don’t. The team’s coach supplies the quote you need – “It’s about players, they truly believe that if it’s close, they’re going to find a way to win” – making it easy to quickly write the wood headline to sell the package.
But there’s a one problem – the photo shows the receiver’s leg breaking as he loses the ball. And there’s no way to crop the photo to eliminate the crooked leg without losing the information that it’s happening at the goal line.
Do you find another photo that doesn’t tell the story of the game, worried that your photo might not pass the Cheerio’s test? Or do you figure it’s OK, given that nearly every reader saw that replay multiple times during ESPN’s live coverage, or in ESPN’s highlight blog that shows the place twice after the game, or available in other online places (including “traditional” media sites.)
We’re having this discussion now because The Opelika-Auburn News published that photo and the “FINDING A WAY” hed on its sports front for November 2, 2014.
Running the photo with its headline led to an even greater problem – the combination creates a package that becomes more than the sum of its parts, and more than a few readers and bloggers might think you mean that “finding a way” includes breaking a person’s leg.
So the results are predictable—media write about the page and people nationwide criticize the paper for its decision, and not just the football-conspiracy few who believe that this was a deliberate attempt to embarrass Auburn because someone working the desk went to a different school.
A few questions and thoughts for people thinking about media ethics:
* Does it matter that we can see the video and pictures online and not be so upset, but when in print it somehow crosses an ethical line? As we start the third decade of the Internet age, does print really add an imprimatur that doesn’t exist online?
(I think this is a function of web pull vs. newspaper push: We don’t seem to mind as much that the Web has gruesome pictures and video, because we can choose for ourselves whether to see it. We do seem to mind when it’s pushed on us by the newspaper, who makes the decision for us.)
* How much of this is third-person effect, the theory that says we tend to overestimate the effect that media will have on other people?
* Should there be an apology? The paper apologized, but not for running the photo, which it called “gut-wrenching” but “also tells the story.” (An early version of editorial wished the photo had been smaller; that later was edited out of the editorial.)
The paper said it would have found a new headline, saying it was “not meant to celebrate Treadwell’s injury or offend any reader. To any person hurt by our editorial decision, we apologize.”
Later, the paper wrote:
Our staff has already spent several hours discussing Sunday’s decisions, and we’ll continue to do that in the next few days. If we could redesign Sunday’s 1B again, we would. One thing we would do is use a different headline. We chose “FINDING A WAY” because after the game, numerous players and coaches discussed how the team keeps fighting and finding a way to win difficult games.
The apology pleased few readers, based on the loads of comments below the paper’s editorial calling for everyone’s head.
* Based on the loads of comments below the paper’s editorial, is it fair to think that many readers believe the newspaper represents Auburn?
* Do people really think that the paper planned for its photo and headline to add up to what it is perceived to mean?
This one is easy, after scores of weekend nights on deadline: I promise that no one in that newsroom had time, much less inclination, to think the photo and headline added up to what some want to think it means. I’m sure the designer thought: “We have the photo that explains the game. We have the overhed from Malzahn’s quote. We’re done.”
* Argue with this sentence: What can be attributed to malice is usually just stupidity or deadline.
Finally, a sentence from the paper’s explanation struck us: “Our staff has already spent several hours discussing Sunday’s decisions, and we’ll continue to do that in the next few days.” As we say in Doing Ethics in Media, deadline is too late to be making decisions from the gut. At that point, either rules (“we never publish pictures of breaking legs or dead bodies”) or front-loaded moral philosophy should kick in.by