By: DAVID NOACK
When editors at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times decided to run a graphic and haunting photograph of a man dying of lung cancer on June 15, they braced themselves for the usual round of calls from readers upset with the picture.
Instead, when the calls and e-mails started coming in ? 200 in all ? they were positive and supportive of the paper for telling the story of 34-year-old Bryan Lee Curtis who, as his last wish, wanted people, especially children, to know and see the harmful and devastating effects of smoking.
While reporters and news organizations are often criticized for invading a person’s privacy, in this case Curtis’ mother Louise sought out the media, going to the local papers and TV stations and asking them to tell her son’s story so it might help prevent someone else from starting to smoke.
Curtis started smoking when he was 13 years old. He eventually worked his way up to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Twenty-one years later, he lay emaciated and near death, some nine weeks after being told that he had lung cancer. The paper did a follow-up story June 22 on reader reaction to the original story of the week before. By the time the first story appeared, Curtis was already dead. He died shortly after a reporter and a photographer left his home June 3. His funeral was conducted June 8.
The powerful impact of the original coverage by medical reporter Sue Landry resulted from a combination of factors, say editors. It consisted of a relatively short article and two key photographs ? one of Curtis on his deathbed, which was taken by V. Jane Windsor, a staff photographer, and the other of Curtis and his son nine weeks earlier, which was provided by his family.
Landry says she was first approached to do the story by Curtis’ mother, who had called her from the lobby of the newspaper. They talked, and when Landry saw some photographs, she knew there was a story.
“[Curtis’ mother] explained to me about why he wanted to get his story out. He wanted to let kids see him because he thought it would convince them not to smoke,” says Landry.
When Landry and Windsor arrived at the house, Curtis could no longer speak, and he did not even know they were there. “We were there about 45 minutes to an hour. The family was very open about having us there. I kind of stayed in the background. I talked to the mother ? his wife, other people in the room. We would have stayed a little longer, but he was breathing harder, and I felt it was time to leave,” says Landry.
Landry says she expected complaints from readers about the photo, but was surprised by the reaction. “I was just astounded by the amount of response we got and how strongly positive it was, and how people felt this ? really told the story about smoking in a way that other things they saw hadn’t,” says Landry.
City editor Sherry Robinson says the decision to go ahead with the story turned on the photographs that Landry had shown her. “These were pictures that his Mom brought in. The transformation was incredible. There was nothing sort of really newsy. People die of cancer every day. But I think what made this story different was the pictures and the fact this guy, who was every guy, wanted to do something in the last remaining days of his life,” says Robinson.
The story wound up on the front page of the paper’s weekday features section, called “Floridian.” Robinson says the story was put there because it allowed the reader more time to read the story and there was enough space to run the two photographs together to show what the disease had done.
“This was the kind of a story that people really needed some time to look at, and they needed some time to digest those pictures because they were quite incredible,” says Robinson.
Times executive editor Paul Tash says he wasn’t sure what kind of reaction the photo would get. “As much as I was trying, at least hypothetically, to find an alternative, I felt the power of those photographs demanded that they be played the way they were, and so I was curious as to what the reaction would be,” says Tash.
He says one caller wanted a son, who only gets the Sunday edition of the paper, to see the story and photos and asked that it be run again that day.
Nancy Waclawek, the assistant managing editor for features, says Curtis had a message that he wanted people to know.
“I think we played the story straight. I think we were honest about the photography. It was sensational in and of itself because of the news it communicated.”