Should newspapers publish photos of dead bodies?

A Prince George newspaper published a photo of a murder victim lying in a pool of blood. Was it the right thing to do?

In a post for the blog Writer’s Block, Prince George Free Press editor Bill Phillips writes about the Prince George Citizen‘s front page photo of murder victim Darren Munch lying in a pool of blood. His post is in response to the question people keep asking him: would he have run the photo? He writes:

“Tough question. It’s easy to say that Black Press has a blanket policy that we don’t publish pictures of dead people. It’s easy to say. Confronted with a photo of a brazen daylight shooting, the debate in any newsroom would be hot and heavy. The easy decision is to not run it. The tough call is to run the photo.”

Phillips points out that if a newspaper is “truly to be a mirror of the community, then such photos should run.” After all, a murder in the broad daylight in a public place is definitely news. Phillips adds that “The photo only shows what anyone there, at that time, would have seen.”

He asks: “Should newspapers be a filter for the community? When it comes to violent death, that is often what is expected.”

In a separate Writers Block post on the subject, Phillips writes:

“When we first saw the photo, we here at the Free Press immediately noticed that it looked like it had been doctored … the face was blurred. The Citizen admitted, in its subsequent editorial, that it had blurred face. The reasoning that the police hadn’t yet identified him is, in my opinion, a weak argument. In addition, my feeling is that if a newspaper alters the content of an image, it should let the readers know that it has been altered. One of our primary mandates is to be truthful to the reader. A black box over the face, would have been just as effective and would have let the reader know that the newspaper was intentionally obscuring the face.”

This isn’t the first time a publication Phillips has worked for has published a dead body photo. And each time they’re published, the newspaper receives plenty of calls and letters calling the decision inappropriate (in response to a photo not of a body but of a dead child’s mangled bike, three priests told the editor he was “going to Hell” and would be held responsible if the boy’s mother committed suicide.)

Phillips points out that the paper may never know if running the photo served anyone positively. “However, as a newspaper, if we run such a photo we do in the hope that somewhere in this city, there is a young fellow on the fringes of the gang world who saw that photo and decided he doesn’t want to end up dead in the street.

“The community also has been calling on the police and the courts to get tougher on crime. Shouldn’t that call also be extended to the media”