‘Philly Daily News’ Ponders Photo Controversy

By: Joe Strupp

It’s a tabloid tradition: using your cover as a most-wanted poster in the hope of helping police catch criminal suspects while giving readers a chance to help. What could be a better public service than that? And if some of the alleged bad guys are caught because readers happened to recognize them, well, so much the better, right?

Not necessarily.

What if the people you spread across the front and inside pages, like fugitives on a post-office wall, are all black, or Hispanic, or a mix of the two? Should you consider the racial aspects and worry about reinforcing stereotypes or offending minority readers? Or should you simply go with graphics based on the facts?

Editors at the Philadelphia Daily News had to look at those issues recently after running a cover story on dozens of the city’s murder suspects who were still at large, all of whom happened to be nonwhite. When the four-page report ran Aug. 22, with 15 of the suspects’ mug shots on the cover and 27 more inside, reaction was swift and angry.

The paper has received about 150 phone calls and nearly 100 e-mail messages from readers criticizing the assemblage of photos as racist. In addition, some black leaders called for the resignations of Editor Zachary Stalberg and Managing Editor Ellen Foley as well as a boycott of the paper. “I expected a reaction, but I didn’t expect it to be quite as many people and quite as many heartfelt thoughts,” Foley told E&P. Stalberg could not be reached for comment last week.

Foley apologized in a reaction story that ran the next day. She also wrote a separate apology column published Aug. 30 in which she said it was a mistake to run the photos without addressing why none of the suspects were white. Police theorized that one of the likely reasons was that white residents have less fear of police than blacks and, therefore, are more cooperative in searching for criminals.

“That would have been a very healthy dose of context,” said Foley. But would that text alone have muted the impact of the graphics? Foley, in fact, told E&P that if she could do it over, she would not have run the cover images the same way.

But does that amount to self-censorship? And then there’s another factor: two of the highlighted fugitives have since been arrested. Would that have happened if their photos had been pulled?

Other metro tabloid editors agreed the issue was touchy, but admitted they didn’t have an all-encompassing policy for handling it. Ed Kosner, editor in chief of the New York Daily News, which has run similar “most-wanted” covers, said, “You have to be sensitive, but you have to balance the news reality.” However, he declined to say what he would have done about the graphics in a similar situation. “I make my editing decisions based on specifics,” he said.

Chicago Sun-Times Editor in Chief Michael Cooke also punted. If the Sun-Times were faced with the same choices in photographs as the Philadelphia Daily News, Cooke said, “We would pull together four or five of our key people and talk about it. I don’t know how we would end up. It’s a tough call.”

In an ironic turn, the Philadelphia paper received criticism from one of its own columnists — not for running the photos but for apologizing. Michael A. Smerconish wrote, “The capitulation of the Daily News does nothing but prove that, as a society, we remain unwilling to broach any subject that involves substantive dialogue about race.” Smerconish also called the resulting discussions and protests over the photos “a bogus debate” because it ignores the issue of why so many of the fugitives were black.

Foley said her 151,842-weekday-circulation paper had not seen any dramatic drop in readership, which is about 40% black, because of the controversy. “We will be careful with our images and sensitivity to the community,” she said, “but still have the courage to tell the truth.”

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