Inside the newsroom: Scenes from the protests and the ethics of covering a difficult story
How do you not let a few heated moments, which make dramatic pictures, outweigh the peaceful moments, which might make less dramatic or compelling images? How do you get at the truth?
SALT LAKE CITY — When the story of 2020 is told in the years ahead, it will be the images of the pandemic, economic collapse and recovery, and racial unrest that will leave the greatest impression.
There is always a catalyst — pictures of Wuhan City, China launched the world’s attention on COVID-19; the horrifying video of police in Minnesota detaining and then killing George Floyd.
There can be no debate about the world-changing impact of those events. But how do you accurately record the long-lasting fallout, the local and national changes, the public’s reactions, the where-do-we-go-from-here fear or, perhaps, optimism?
It can be a dilemma for photojournalists and their visual editors each day: How do you balance all the photo coverage? How do you not let a few heated moments, which make for dramatic pictures, outweigh the peaceful yet potentially profound moments that might make less dramatic or compelling images? How do you arrive at the truth of the moment?
As one Deseret News photographer told me this week, “I’m still struggling with this.”
That struggle is not new, but it is front and center for photographers at this moment in history when every day is a new piece of this overlapping, multi-layered story.
I posed a question to Deseret News Photo Chief Chuck Wing Saturday: “Is there a single image or images that tell the story of this moment?” Utah has seen a surge during the latter half of the week in coronavirus cases. The week is bookended by a violent protest and then a series of peaceful protests culminating Saturday.
Here’s what Chuck had to say, referencing the work of Deseret News photojournalists Jeff Allred, Laura Seitz, Kristin Murphy, Steve Griffin, Scott Winterton and Ivy Ceballo.
“Each day has had its own image that tells the story of the day. Certainly last Saturday the violent protests, Jeff Allred’s photo of the protester throwing the water bottle at the cops with the car burning in the background. And Laura’s photo of the man being pulled out of the car and beaten up as he allegedly threatened other protesters with a bow and arrow certainly stand out from that day,” he said.
Other photos also recorded the peaceful hours leading up to those moments and there were dozens of photos captured in Deseret News photo galleries online, and in the next day’s print edition telling the whole story. But those images were indicative of the violence, police response and the resultant calling out of the National Guard by the governor and the call for a weekend curfew by the mayor of Salt Lake City.
Still, I received a letter of concern about two of our social media posts that included only one photo, designed to point to the entirety of the Deseret News coverage. The photo initially selected was of a black man protesting in front of a burning police car. We ran many stories, commentaries, dozens of photos and perspectives. But we also have to be mindful of where and how people are getting their information and what the perception is; if they only see one photo and one story, what should it say?
If the platform — print, web, social media like Instagram or Facebook — has limitations, we have to take great care in how we are portraying only one part of the story on that limiting platform. Can it be misinterpreted? In the case of the social media posts, we opted to switch out the photo to avoid misinterpretation.
There are other important ethical concerns. This week the conversation inside the newsroom pointed to safety. What can we ask of our journalists? There is a continuing risk of COVID-19. There is risk of getting hit by an object thrown by a protester. The good news, our journalists want to be on the scene reporting and photographing, documenting these important events. It helps lead to solutions for our communities and nation. So we make sure they are equipped to be protected and to do the job.
“I got to the protest around 4 p.m. and left around 7:30 p.m.” said Seitz of last Saturday’s protest. “I was very close when the crowd starting beating Brandon McCormick. ... It was frightening to see such anger. I was also very close when they started destroying his car and then flipped it over. It was chaos and history in the making. I never imagined I would see such anger and violence in Salt Lake City,” she said.
By Monday, the tone of the protests had changed and photographers worked diligently to show that change.
“Certainly the single police officer kneeling Monday is the iconic image of that day and also represented the peaceful intent of the protesters and the olive branch from the police officer which ultimately would represent his fellow officers in blue,” our photo chief told me.
That was Salt Lake police officer Metui Tautuaa, who said when asked by our reporter, Amy Donaldson why he chose to kneel: “They asked. They want to see us participating with them,” he said of the unplanned gesture. He then added: “I don’t want anybody being hurt today.”
“Each night has been different,” said Murphy, who took the picture, and then compared the scene of Saturday’s protest to Monday’s.
“Yes, there were moments I felt threatened (Saturday). But there were also many moments I felt supported or just neutral. It has been a fluctuating scene for everyone involved,” she said.
“Some people were throwing rocks Saturday night, so that was the only thing I was hit with. It was impossible to tell where they were coming from in the dark, so impossible to dodge them entirely. It wasn’t a huge deal. They were small, so it was just more confusing or frightening than painful. ... Police fired rubber bullets within feet of me, but not at me, thankfully. I wish they’d discontinue the use of rubber bullets, after seeing how much harm they can do.”
Journalist Linda Tirado, 37, of Tennessee lost her eye while photographing protests in Minneapolis after being hit by a rubber bullet. Dozens of journalists have been injured or faced arrest at the hands of police, though none in Salt Lake City. That’s sparked one of the many conversations underway in the nation right now about racism, media, police response, the militarization of police, the role of the federal government versus state governments and more.
A note on two other images. During the pandemic, first responders have paid tribute to those in the medical community who are risking their lives caring for COVID-19 sufferers. They in turn took a knee in a moment of silent reflection and commitment to improve the health and safety of people of color, and in support of law enforcement officers who do their job as it should be done, condemning abuses.
That shows a crossover between the pandemic, which continues, and the push for racial justice, that will also continue.
I asked photojournalist Jeff Allred for his thoughts on the week of events and what he has experienced.
“I would equate my feelings Saturday to my feelings covering Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf states in 2005 and the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. I couldn’t concentrate solely on the protest because I had to watch the protester/rioters since they were capable to anything and police and media were the least of their concerns.
“They were throwing rocks, heavy objects, metal railing, water bottles, etc and most of the time they were hitting their fellow protesters and not always the police. I was hit in the forearm and ankle with something small, heavy and metallic. I was also hit by a glass bottle in the hip. I had to balance between keeping watch of the hundreds of rioters in order to avoid being hit by the objects they were throwing and watch the key moments to photograph the confrontation of police and other rioters close to them.”
Thankfully, peace prevailed as the week wore on. That allowed more people to take to the streets to raise their voices and push for change, while leaving the violence behind.