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posted: 10/27/2011 5:00 AM

Let viewer decide on graphic news photographs

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When tyrants die, it's often not pretty. But the death of Moammar Gadhafi was especially brutal. You can get the idea and then some with a simple YouTube search. But our editors had a more spirited debate about how to present pictures for the print edition.

Whether online or in print, the Daily Herald is conscientious about respecting the sensitivities of readers. In that vein, we have strict policies against publishing pictures of dead bodies. Whether the event is the death of one of the most despised men in the world or the loss of hundreds of innocent lives in a natural disaster, our decision making begins from the observation that newspaper readers can't choose the images put before them. Words can describe horrific events quite well, and for many sensitive readers, the addition of graphic pictures can be unnecessarily disturbing. The decision to view them is a choice individuals should make for themselves, and only in the rarest of circumstances -- a small, very touching photo of a firefighter holding an infant killed in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1993 is the only one that comes to mind -- do we presume to make it for them.

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At the same time, we also are committed to presenting news events thoroughly and accurately, and that commitment posed a special challenge with Gadhafi. For, he was brutally handled following his capture, and pictures clearly showed his swollen and bloodied face as he was being pulled and dragged by his captors. That brutality was becoming a story of its own on the day when Gadhafi's demise was clearly overwhelming news.

So, Executive Editor Madeleine Doubek, National Editor Jeff Nordlund and Director of Photography Jeff Knox, along with other editors at the daily news meeting, gave the matter special attention. The prohibition against dead bodies wasn't itself the issue, for the pictures showed Gadhafi while he was alive. But the images were alarming -- which, for one side of the discussion, was the very point. Could we adequately report on Gadhafi's capture if we didn't show how roughly, to put it mildly, he was handled?

The first question was what picture should be our main photo of the day. Should it be one of the many shots of jubilation in the streets of Libya, or an image of the strongman's capture? That decision was reached easily. Every capture picture available would simply be too shocking at a large size on the front page, and besides, by the next morning, the key story would not be Gadhafi's death but the nation's reaction to it. But should we still use one of the pictures of his capture as a secondary image, smaller and lower on the front page? Wouldn't that be the visual link for people to really understand this event? Ultimately, the stark violence of the images deterred us from even that approach, but News Editor Neil Holdway offered a suggestion that ultimately seemed to satisfy all our goals. Using a cropped picture in a very small position as part of a box referring readers to more stories inside could give enough of a hint of the brutality at issue without forcing a potentially disturbing image on readers. There is no such thing as a tasteful alternative in circumstances like these, but Holdway's option offered an effective balance and became the foundation for the front page.

Pictures and video can tell a news story in a way that words do not, but that isn't always an advantage when an event is especially shocking or sensational. If you're interested, you always have the option of more visual detail on the Web, but, when it comes to the Daily Herald, we still want to make sure the choice of whether to view especially graphic images in the news is left to you.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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