By: Joe Strupp
FOR MOST NEWSPAPERS throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, the decision about whether or not to print the photo of convicted killer Richard Allen Davis’ obscene gesture was not made lightly.
“We felt it was a very telling photograph and the discussion was only whether we use it for a main photo, inside, or a secondary shot,” said Bob Swofford, managing editor of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which displayed the photo on the front page. “A lot of discussion went into where to use it and how to use it; it had news value because it showed his continued lack of remorse.”
The fact that the Press Democrat’s John Burgess served as the trial’s pool photographer and snapped the controversial photo that was eventually sent out over the Associated Press wire, played a part in the newspaper’s decision to play up the picture. The fact that the murder victim’s hometown, Petaluma, Calif., is within the Press Democrat’s distribution area, also gave the photo more impact, Swofford said.
“I think we thought about it carefully, we weighed a lot of options, and there is no second-guessing on our part,” he added.
Other Bay Area newspapers playing the photo on the front page were the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times.
The Chronicle reported receiving more than 130 negative phone calls, as well as several subscription cancellations.
“This is his reaction in a courtroom, we are a newspaper, and it was the news of the day,” said Lance Iverson, photo editor for the Chronicle. “You can’t ignore it, and you can’t hide it because it was news.”
The Marin Independent Journal, located in Novata, and which also serves readers in the victim’s hometown, chose to print the photo, but ran it on the editorial page with a strong editorial about the verdict. The photo drew about 30 negative phone calls, according to Independent Journal executive editor Mike Townsend.
The Sacramento Bee is the only daily newspaper near the Bay Area that did not publish the photo.
Bee executive editor Gregory Favre said, “You run that picture for shock value only. There was no other redeeming value in it. We didn’t run it to show that Davis is a despicable, disgusting, contemptible human being. What he did spells that out thousands of times more than any picture could ever do.
“Those who ran it because they said it cleared up what kind of person he really is were just looking for an excuse to publish the picture.”
?(Strupp is a freelance writer.) [Caption]