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A Picture's Worth...

Had an interesting casual conversation with some journalist friends over the weekend about the shooting of 7-year-old Aiyana Jones, or rather about the coverage of the shooting.

Most interesting was this query: "Do you know the Detroit Free Press hasn't run a single picture of the police officer who shot that child?"

Actually, no I didn't know, as I mostly follow the papers online these days. But I sure am curious as to why.

The local papers run pictures of cops in trouble all the time. And they certainly run photos of people involved in all manner of controversy, violence, accidents and assorted other mishaps. And they have never, to my knowledge, ever shied away from running photos of any person of color embroiled in potentially racially sensitive controversies -- and certainly not ones with life-and-death implications like this. (I can't think of a lot of white folks who've gotten this treatment either, truth be told.)

So if what I hear is right, what's really the thinking behind this glaring omission? One friend thinks it is likely race, that the decision is probably driven, at least in part, by skittishness that predominantly black Detroiters might not be able to control their rage at the sight of a white cop's face in the paper. That'd be weak and confused logic, of course, but wouldn't be the first time I've heard of it happening in newspapers. Somehow, some news leaders think that by reporting what happened you only add to people's anger. But it's not the reporting or the pictures that piss off people -- but the event itself. I mean, really, who goes postal over a newspaper photograph? The idea that black readers couldn't handle seeing a picture of the officer without tossing a trashcan through the window of Sal's Pizzeria is small-minded, silly and insulting.

Second, who does a paper protect by not running a picture in a case like this? Certainly not the officer. I grew up in the community where little Aiyana lived and died, and I guarantee you that folks over there didn't need a newspaper photo to get word around that the officer whose gun fired the shot was a white man.

(And in any event, the overwhelming sentiment I've heard hasn't been racial animus, but rather unimaginable grief over the little girl's death and smoldering anger at the department as an institution. For most, this is at least as much about black-and-blue as about black-and-white.)

Third, why would any newspaper think its job is to withhold information, even potentially infuriating headshots?

Maybe there are other reasons for not running a photo of the officer. Maybe, suddenly, pictures of the principals involved in a local tragedy that has captured national attention no longer have news value. (Not that that has stopped anyone from running heart-wrenching pictures of the child who died or of the grandmother whom the police have alleged "made contact" with Officer Weekley and caused the gun to go off.)

Sure, maybe it's not that deep. In today's multimedia world, after all, it's not that hard to find a photo in one place if you can't find it somewhere else. So it's doubtful that anyone who really wanted to know what Weekley looks like couldn't have easily found out on another site. Nothing lost there.

But still, I'm worried about what we lose when newspapers start withholding information, especially if it's because they don't think readers can handle it.

What do you think? Should a newspaper run a photo of an officer in circumstances such as the Aiyana Jones tragedy? Is fear of violent backlash because of a photo a legitimate concern for news organizations? I don't think so, but share your thoughts...

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