Photo of Halloween Display Challenges Editor’s Ethics

Halloween display at Fort Campbell taken down after complaints.
Halloween display at Fort Campbell taken down after complaints. Contributed photo from clarksvillenow.com.

By Casey Bukro

Lynching is no joking matter in the United States. News manager Robert Selkow found himself in the middle of a controversy over a Halloween display featuring three figures hanging from a tree.

“I got a photo on a smartphone,” recalled Selkow, who is site manager and news director of clarksvillenow.com, an online hyperlocal website affiliated with six radio stations serving Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky.  “It looked like a scene out of (the movie) ‘Mississippi Burning,’ black figures being hanged.”

He said it turned out to be “the most powerful image we ever published.”

Selkow contacted Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists in facing this sensitive issue, and agreed to discuss details of the case publicly.

The offensive Halloween display was in the residential area of the Fort Campbell military base on the Kentucky-Tennessee border near Clarksville.

Clarksvillenow.com reported at the time in 2014 that a reader sent the photo of what appears to be a black family hanging from a tree in the front yard of a home. Their heads are covered in black plastic, the figures are spattered in fake blood and hands are tied behind their backs.

Selkow called the Fort Campbell public affairs office for comment on the display. “We needed confirmation, and we said we had a photo of this display,” said Selkow. “They said yeah, it was not appropriate and had to be taken down. They gave me confirmation or we would not have used (the photo).”

The Army public affairs officer agreed that the display was “offensive in nature” and the occupant of the home where the display was located was told of community concerns. He took it down and apologized.

For Selkow, that was not the end of the story.

Soon after, the resident of the home called Selkow and demanded that he remove the effigy photo from the clarksvillenow.com website.

“He said there was nothing racial to it, but would not discuss it,” said Selkow. “He just wanted us to take it down.” Selkow offered to discuss it further for a follow-up story, but the resident refused.

Selkow wondered what the fairest and most ethical thing to do would be, so he called AdviceLine and spoke to one of its most experienced consultants, Hugh Miller.

After viewing the photo, Miller read the story with him. Selkow said Miller “went line by line with me and checked it for fairness.”

“We discussed the issue of editing a story already published,” Miller wrote in his case report. “In general, this is a bad idea, I argued. Permitting it opens all kinds of doors to amending a public record, which makes those records not facts, but completely fungible containers. The time to decide what goes in a story is before one publishes it. If it needs emendation later, publish a correction.

“The photo had been cropped before publication to isolate the display and exclude details of the locale,” he wrote. Readers must be told of any further alterations to the photo.

“Next we discussed harm to the family,” wrote Miller. “The (Society of Professional Journalists) code asks us to ‘recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.’

“But clearly this display was meant to draw attention. And the arguably racist appearance of such a display, and on the grounds of a military base, was clearly a matter for public attention.

“Given this, was the story causing the family undue or uncalled for harm? The language of the article was neutral and fairly objective, hardly incitatory. The reporters agreed. We decided that, if they wanted to deal with the issue of the family harassment, the family should be approached for a follow-up story, and the base public affairs office asked for comment.”

After talking with Miller, said Selkow, “I was able to stand firm on the story and know I was acting ethically and responsibly in regard to the person whose home was in the photo and gave him every chance to respond and talk to us.” Since he refused, “my hands were tied, I could not go on the record.”

The photo, he added, “was going to stay put.”

Selkow admits, though, “you get a queasy feeling when it strikes you how your work is affecting peoples’ lives.” It is a reflection worthy of any good journalist to be mindful that journalism has an impact.

That was especially true in this case. That photo appeared in the New York Daily News and Nashville TV station WSMV.

“That remains the biggest story for page views in our five-plus years,” said Selkow.

Clarksvillenow.com is owned and operated by Saga Communications, a broadcast company with radio and television stations in 26 markets.

The clarksvillenow.com story also touched off a vigorous debate in the online comment section, including remarks about racism and slavery. The website covers a population of 200,000.

The clarksvillenow.com story is especially important as a case study in online content. People mentioned or shown in archived stories or photos are demanding their removal. They are embarrassed by past transgressions, or their lives have changed through circumstances such as divorce. They want the evidence removed and history erased.

As Miller pointed out, journalists are historians who leave accurate records of local and global events. Just because it is possible now to delete parts of that history does not mean they should.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers,  submit a question.

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