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Saturday, December 20, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 8/3/2014 - Updated: 4 months ago

COMMENTARY

Photos of grieving drive home conflict’s real horrors

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

A reader named Diana Dunsmore called Monday to say she had a problem with The Blade. Specifically, she doesn’t like bad news, and especially, seeing pictures of people who are suffering.

“Today’s paper shows a picture on the front page of a poor Palestinian girl who is grieving,” she said. Ms. Dunsmore doesn’t think the newspaper should have printed this picture, or one on Page 4 that day of Israelis mourning a soldier who died in the fighting.

“It’s a cultural thing,” she said. “The grief in those other countries is much more open and much more difficult for us to witness. It’s hard for us to have to see that. There’s nothing we can do to comfort these people,” and Ms. Dunsmore resents having to see their grief. “That’s an unsettling way to have to start the day.”

Does she have a point?

Your ombudsman immediately looked at the pictures in question. By virtually any standard, they were tasteful and restrained.

They showed no blood nor bodies. The face of the woman in the photo was a picture of anguish. The picture of the faces of the graveside mourners was equally compelling.

The Blade was absolutely correct to publish these photos.

In my opinion, it would be unethical not to do so. Your ombudsman has spent his life in the news business — gathering it, writing it, and teaching others how to do so.

And here’s what Ms. Dunsmore is missing: Newspapers are about news, informing people about what is happening in the world. News professionals don’t often talk about this, but much of the time, we assume happy is normal, and normal isn’t news.

Right now few things are “normal” in the Middle East, and ferocious fighting has been raging in Gaza between Israelis and Palestinians. This is something that is of interest worldwide, in part because it has global repercussions. Pictures often can capture the human cost of suffering in ways words cannot.

Anyone who has seen what comes into a news operation’s photo desk knows that if The Blade really wanted to unsettle people, the newspaper could print pictures that would make it impossible for most of us to eat our breakfast.

Your ombudsman was once a reporter and went to murder and plane crash scenes in this country and covered disasters in the developing world. I visited Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

My experience tells me that Ms. Dunsmore’s idea that people in some countries experience grief differently than others is nonsense.

What history ought to teach all of us is that there is nothing more dangerous than hiding or camouflaging reality.

World War I started exactly a century ago. For most of the war there was little candid news photography and not much investigative journalism. Nine million people died.

Mainly, they died horribly and pointlessly.

What if people could have seen what the slaughter looked like while it was going on? Might they have demanded their leaders make peace sooner? We will never know for sure.

What I do know is that any newspaper’s job is to inform its readers about significant and well as entertaining news and to touch them in a way that gets them to see and to care.

And sometimes a picture really does do that better than a thousand words.

In a similar vein: Allen Agin of Sylvania wrote to me:

“I see The Blade still uses KILLED in the dog report. When is The Blade going to use a less offensive term?”

Well, the flip answer that springs to mind is: Maybe when they stop killing them. The fact is that dogs are being killed.

Your ombudsman, as I have said before, doesn’t entirely agree with The Blade’s policy on this. If it were up to me, I would not name the poor man who shows up to have his 14-year-old dog humanely put down because the animal is suffering with cancer.

In my own life, dogs are full family members, and I have had to do that seven times. I also agree there are some vicious dogs that need to be euthanized.

But the fact is that they are killed.

Not “put to sleep,” but killed. In one of his greatest essays, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell showed how the language is often debased by the use of euphemisms (“elimination of undesirable elements,”) for words like “killing.”

There may be times when dogs need, sadly, to be killed. But the truth is that is what it is.

The editors of The Blade evidently believe in telling it like it is, and I respect that.

Doris Clinton wrote me to say, “I don’t know who selects what goes in The Blade, but too much is not worth the read, too many subjects are not of interest,” and goes on to say she doesn’t know why the newspaper has things she isn’t interested in, including some columnists and stories about Crystal Bowersox, to be “taking up space that could be left for more real news.”

Well, guess what?

There are stories and subjects that I don’t have the slightest interest in, and I would guess that’s true for virtually every reader. But just because I don’t care about, say, the card game bridge, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a bridge column.

That’s the nature of a general-interest newspaper. The goal is that everything in the paper is meaningful, significant, and interesting to somebody, not necessarily everybody. Probably no two people would put together a newspaper exactly the same way. Doing it even close to right is pretty hard.

And naturally, criticizing the way others do it is a breeze.

Anyone who as a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/​o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me, at 1-888-746-8610 or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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