March 512, 1998
Black and White Photography
Inquirer readers weren't the only ones upset by Monday's graphic front-page photo of shooting victim Anthony Davis dying in the street near the University of Pennsylvania campus. Inquirer reporters, photographers and editors engaged in lively debate over the photo's merits at two meetings Tuesday afternoon.
Taken by freelance photographer Terrance Grady of West Philly moments after the shooting that followed Sunday's Public League basketball championship, the photo shows Davis on his back near 33rd and Chestnut, bleeding from a wound near his right shoulder. A police officer reaches toward Davis' neck as if to check his pulse, while another cop asks onlookers to stay back.
Davis and everyone in the crowd is black.
"A lot of people are really pissed off [about the photo]," a source says. "And I have to say it: it's pretty much along racial lines."
"When I picked up the paper that morning and saw it, I said 'Damn,'" Herbert Lowe, the Inquirer's North Philadelphia reporter, recalls. Lowe also is national secretary for the National Association of Black Journalists.
The photo is nothing if not powerful, he explains, and arguably newsworthy. But on the way to North Philly Tuesday to interview Davis' relatives and neighbors, he and the photographer agreed that if the shooting had occurred on the Main Line, it would not have been published.
"What I said at the meeting," Lowe says, "was I can certainly see the news valueit's a powerful photo. But what I needed to know is, if we had a photo of [white beating victim] Eddie Polec lying in a similar position outside that church, I now need to know that we would have run that photo, four columns [wide] on the front page, in color."
And the response?
"It seemed to me [they said] yes we would, that race would not be a factor in keeping a photo out of the paper."
Al Hunter isn't so sure. A Daily News reporter and president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, Hunter is troubled by the photo's content and use.
"I believe that had that victim been white, that photograph would not have shown up on the front page. The sensitivity quotient would have been higher than it was for this victim. I don't know what the thinking was, but I think it would have been different if the victim was white."
On the other hand, Hunter points out, some of those involved in deciding to run the photo are African American.
"It was the nature of [the basketball game] being such a public event" that weighed most heavily in the decision, says Arlene Notoro Morgan, the recently appointed reader liaison who will tackle the issue in her column on Friday. Two of the four editors who reviewed the photo were black, she confirms, and they told her they considered many issuesnewsworthiness, adding to the family's griefbut race was not among them. (None of the editors could be reached for comment.)
The meetings were "civil," says Morgan. Reader reaction was another matter. Of the 120 calls, e-mails and letters received by Tuesday afternoon, most fell into three categories: the photo was (a) insensitive to the victim's family; (b) racist; or (c) "distasteful and disgusting." About a dozen readers praised the paper's decision; one wrote: "Maybe [the photo] could be used to demonstrate [to children] how harmful drugs and guns are "
Morgan says Deputy Editor Gene Foreman told her the Inquirer has no written policy for such situations. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
"It's an editorial statementfor me, anywayand sometimes people disagree with statements," Morgan says. "But what's a newspaper's job? It's to tell the truth, and sometimes the truth is not pleasant."