Staged Journalism p. 11

By: Tony Case

One supermarket tabloid publishes computer-recreated photos
of a battered Nicole Brown Simpson; another runs photos of a
staged murder scene with a stand-in portraying the corpse sp.

THE MEDIA AND the public weren’t allowed to see horrific photos of a slaughtered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, but a supermarket tabloid gave its readers the next best thing ? staged journalism.
The National Examiner last month recreated and captured on film the site of the murders ? using a blond stand-in, blood-red makeup and a little computer gimmickry ? based on pictures taken by investigators and shown at the trial of defendant O.J. Simpson.
Even though Judge Lance Ito, the defense and prosecution teams, and the jurors all saw them, the photographs were shielded from media coverage.
“Not for the squeamish,” the Examiner warned on its cover ? admitting, in less prominent type, that the vivid, full-color images in its inside spread had been “enhanced.”
“We toned them down because the real stuff was just too gory,” explained Terry Raskyn, vice president of Globe Communications, which publishes both the Examiner and Globe tabloids.
“What we wanted to do was give people an idea of what was being seen in court . . . but we made it somewhat NC 17-rated,” she said.
Examiner editor Dan Dolan defended his paper’s running the photos, noting that football legend Simpson is on trial in American households as well as a Los Angeles courtroom, and the everyday spectator should be privy to the same information as the judge and jury.
“Members of the public have a right to see what the jury saw, because they also are factoring in different things and making up their own minds,” Dolan said. “The jury has a complete picture, with nothing being withheld.”
Critics charge that in dramatizing the news, media organizations hurt both their own reputations, and the image of journalism at large ? and it’s not only the tabloids that have been caught with their scruples down.
Time magazine was pounded last year for putting a darkened mug shot of O.J. Simpson on its cover. Newsday published a controversial, computer-generated photo that gave the false impression dueling Olympic skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding had practiced side by side. And in a report on the safety of General Motors trucks, “Dateline NBC” ran videotape of an exploding pickup that was rigged to do so.
Just weeks ago, another tabloid, the National Enquirer ? which claims the biggest circulation of any U.S. paper and has emerged as a leader in O.J. coverage ? ran a bogus picture of a battered and bruised Nicole Simpson on its cover with the disclaimer “computer recreation.”
The photograph was based on snapshots taken by Nicole’s sister, Denise Brown, after O.J. Simpson had allegedly beaten Nicole. Police seized Brown’s pictures initially, but they were later introduced in court and reprinted by newspapers.
“We had very good sources, people who saw the picture, and we recreated it electronically ? and we felt that was reasonable,” said Enquirer editor in chief Iain Calder, relating that photo artists took pains to get the image right and that Brown herself gave thumbs up to the finished version.
“If it’s done properly and accurately and with integrity,” the editor said of picture enhancement, “then it’s OK, as long as you tell people upfront.”
National Press Photographers Association executive director Charles Cooper maintains that in running doctored pictures ? even with accompanying explanations ? these papers are really pushing the ethical boundaries.
“They’re playing a little loose,” he said. “This is a very sensitive, top news story, and in playing around with it, people may believe what they see.”
Cooper argued that readers don’t pay much attention to the minuscule caveats appearing at the bottom of retouched and staged photographs, and that the images ? however phony or prominently labeled as fake ? are burned into people’s minds at the supermarket checkout.
“If it’s a food story or commercial advertisement, then certain liberties can be taken,” Cooper said, “but anytime you’re presenting something as a news photo, it should not be altered at all.”
Ethicists even frown upon such seemingly innocent finagling as airbrushing telephone poles or electrical wires out of pictures for publication, he added.
Cooper says it’s unfortunate that many papers in this country are going the way of the muckraking British tabs, commenting, “They’re not part of the American scene, in a media sense. They don’t seem to want to conform too much of the time.”
Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Boyarsky concurred that the tabloids are treading on thin ice.
“The whole idea of what they’re doing [photo manipulation] is really dangerous,” he said in an interview, “and it’s the kind of thing that could seep into the mainstream press.”
Raskyn, a former managing editor of WCBS Radio in New York City, related that supermarket tabloid reporters ? despite the lambasting they get ? are among the hardest-working newspeople she has seen during her 20 years in daily journalism.
“Nobody would be squawking if the New York Post, Daily News or even People magazine did this,” she said.
“I think when you put it in a tabloid format, in those primary colors, people make these incredible assumptions that we’re making these stories up ? especially when it comes to O.J. This story has had more angles and longer legs than anything we’ve ever seen before. Truth is stranger than anything we could make up.”
Dolan said the Examiner had been straightforward in executing the Nicole Simpson photo shoot and printing the pictures, pointing out that “Entertainment Tonight,” in a lead story, demonstrated step by step how the paper had recreated the Brentwood crime scene.
Much of the excoriation, he feels, amounts to “false piety.”
Dolan noted it was the Examiner ? not a big metropolitan newspaper or prime-time television show ? that got the first interviews with Simpson’s family following her brutal murder.
“The tabloids are leading, because we have the best reporters in America,” the editor boasted, “because this is one of the few places in American journalism where there’s still healthy competition ? and competition makes you sharper.”

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