On the LA Times’ photo of the slain ambassador

By Molly Boushell

Many readers of The Los Angeles Times were likely surprised to find a graphic photo of the late United States Ambassador Christopher Stevens on the front page of its morning paper on Sept. 13. Editors initially defended their decision to use the photo of the injured ambassador on the grounds that the image “vividly captured this important event” and was “the least grisly of the available images,” among other considerations.

However, since it first appeared on the front page, the electronic trail to the photograph has grown increasingly more indirect.

By 12:36 p.m. on the day the photograph was printed, an online article had been published in the “Readers’ Rep” section of the newspaper’s website consisting of seemingly hand-picked negative reactions from readers panning the newspapers’ decision to use the picture on its front page.

According to the article, “readers called the photo graphic, unwarranted, inappropriate, disgraceful, gratuitous and insensitive.” It also included statements from several readers expressing their disagreement with the paper’s decision. The article was accompanied by a screenshot of the top fold front page in question, complete with the photograph. No positive feedback from readers was published in the article, leading to a question of whether such feedback did not exist or was not included.

The following Saturday the article appeared almost verbatim under the “Letters” section of the online incarnation of the paper with several key changes, most notably the picture accompanying it. Where the original response to the controversy had contained a picture of the front page and photograph in question, the new article was headed with a photo of Stevens speaking to journalists in Benghazi back in April 2011.

The first line of the story, though identical, had become a link to a photo gallery of the riots. The first picture was not the controversial photo of Stevens that had once dominated the front page. That picture had been moved to the second slot, the whole slideshow now sitting below a disclaimer that the gallery “may contain images that are disturbing to some readers,” most likely referring to the photograph once used on the front page.

The New York Times, which had decided to publish a similar photo at the end of an online slideshow “where it would be less prominent” Wednesday afternoon, was fielding criticism for their decision a day before The Los Angeles Times encountered its own.

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan offered her own opinion of the newspaper’s choice, writing “… it’s hard to mount a reasonable argument against what editors here chose to do.

To put it clearly: They made the right call. Having said that, I would not want to see a similar photograph on the front page of Thursday’s print edition, where its prominence and permanence would give it a different weight.”

The New York Times denied a request from the state department later that evening asking that the photograph be removed, citing its news value, but disclosed that it was not planning to use the photo in Thursday’s print edition. Managing editor Dean Baquet “said the story had moved forward, beyond the point where that photo was as important to the coverage as it was Wednesday morning” in an article that was published the evening before it would appear on the cover of The Los Angeles Times.

All of this suggests that editors at The Los Angeles Times was likely aware of how its similar photograph would be received when it made its decision to publish it on the front page of their print edition. Had The Los Angeles Times made the decision to run such a bold photograph and stood by its choice, its editors would have to be respected for its position. However, its efforts to hide the very photograph it chose to flash on door steps and newsstands across the city indicate its motives for using the controversial photo.

Graphic photojournalism has a place in news reporting. Where violence in culture and media is glamorized and stylized, photojournalism can be shocking in its honesty. In many cases, real depictions of violence make a tragic event more real to our desensitized culture. Their unobscured nature can lend a face to stories that may otherwise be passively accepted as yet another violent event in the 24-hour news cycle. When they are used solely to create controversy, grab attention or create outrage, the victims in the photographs become victims once more.

To use the photograph of the slain ambassador on the front page was questionable, but to then make several efforts to obscure the photo afterwards is wrong. It was not simply a photograph to be used for shock value and then hidden to minimize backlash. It was the violent death of an American representing his country proudly overseas, whose image was exploited to sell newspapers.

By the time the photo appeared on the front page, the story had moved along, there was a new emphasis, and other choices could have been made. The Los Angeles Times chose to run the photograph aware of this, as well as the uproar it would cause. The photograph no less accurately captures the events that transpired than it did when it was printed and hiding it in the days afterward seems to be an act of exploitation.

Molly Boushell is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]