Learning the news: A thousand words

We could have published thousands of words about the events in Charlottesville, but that remarkable picture told the story in ways that words fail to, writes Roger Plothow.

On the afternoon of the tragic events in Charlottesville a week and a half ago I got an email from one of our editors with a copy of the now-iconic photograph showing a car slamming into a group of people.

The question, of course, was: Do we print it? Rather than answering right away, I copied it to my Facebook page and asked my friends to weigh in. Remember, for most of my Facebook friends this was the first time they had seen it. By the next morning, of course, the picture had been seen by many millions.

Over a few hours a dozen or so of us discussed the photo and what the Post Register should do with it. Only a handful of posters suggested we shouldn’t publish it. Most responses were similar to this one:

“Yes. It happened. It is news. It was not words, but images of snarling dogs, and fire hoses, and people sitting at a counter while others dripped milkshakes on their heads, that changed the tide during the … civil rights movement.”

The reference to snarling dogs and fire hoses, of course, is about news photos from places like Birmingham and Selma during the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. It’s likely that those photos had more to do with changing American law than any of the thousands of articles or books written.

As we all know now, we decided to publish the picture prominently on our Nation and World page. We kept it off of our front page for two reasons: First, by the time the paper hit doorsteps on Sunday morning, the photo would have been seen by many of our readers. Second, it’s a pretty tough image to look at first thing on Sunday morning, particularly if you’re a child getting the paper for mom and dad.

By early evening of that bad day, the driver of the car was in custody and had been identified, and we knew that one person had died in the attack. We could have published thousands of words about the incident, but that remarkable picture, taken by a photographer for the Charlottesville newspaper, told the story in ways that words fail to.

Most newspapers ended up printing the picture in their Sunday editions. Some ran the picture rather small while others blurred the license plate and some faces. Every editor and publisher has to make these decisions based on his or her best understanding of good principles of journalism and common sense, plus an appreciation for the local cultural norms. But sometimes cultural norms take a back seat to the raw events of the day.

It feels like we’re entering a new phase of open and sometimes violent disagreements on social and political issues. It’s during such times that journalism plays an even more crucial role than usual.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a year-long weekly series on media literacy.