Sometimes newspapers risk offending readers by publishing a photograph that is compelling but difficult, truthful but wince-inducing.
The Post did that on Monday this week, publishing on page A8 a photograph of a Tibetan exile who set himself afire in New Delhi to protest Chinese rule in Tibet.
It was a hard photo to look at — a man engulfed in flames running in obvious pain during a demonstration. The Post carefully considered it before publishing, with four editors, including the paper’s Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, reviewing it.
Readers who contacted the ombudsman were repelled by it.
Said one: “I have a pretty strong stomach but I found the photo of the youth burning to death in today’s edition to be horribly offensive and upsetting. I have no desire to see someone killing themselves and hope you’ll refrain from publishing such graphic and brutal photographs in the future.”
Said another: “I can’t risk my children seeing the paper any more – I don’t even want to read it. It’s like being forced to watch a horror movie. I know the Post needs to sell papers but this is so beyond the pale.”
But I agree with The Post that it was a photo worth running, especially given the nature of the accompanying story by Simon Denyer, The Post’s India bureau chief, about the growing use of this tactic to call attention to Chinese authority in Tibet. I urge you to read the story, which was compelling, and unsettling.
Robert Miller, The Post’s national and foreign photo editor, spoke for the paper about the selection of this photo:
“We felt the photo was compelling and appropriate for the story, which was heavily focused on the recent self-immolations by Tibetans. The image transcends the moment. It is a horrible scene that reflects the reality that 33 people have set themselves on fire in protest of what many Tibetans see as a systematic attempt by the Chinese government to destroy their culture, silence their voices, and erase their identity.
“We agreed the photo was troubling. We looked at other choices from the sequence and decided it was the least graphic of the images. We tried to bring context by packaging additional images from the man's funeral."
One of the role’s of newspapers is to present the world as it exists, not to sugarcoat the truth but to make it plain for all to see. This was in that vein.