Though a picture may be worth a thousand words, it hardly conjures the same thousand words in every reader. Consider this: A front-page photograph in the May 27 paper showed two midshipmen embracing after graduation at the U.S. Naval Academy. One of the midshipmen was black, and he was weeping with some mixture of joy and relief. Holding onto him was his roommate, a white midshipman, who was smiling with his own mixture of joy and relief.
A reader called to express how much that photo affected her. "It was the most poignant, effective picture I've ever seen, and I cut it out and framed it." But another objected. "I question the editorial judgment that led to your using a photo . . . of what was obviously a very private moment in the life of Midshipman Frazier. I can only imagine the embarrassment of this young man as he begins his Naval career." One reader complained that the photograph was racially insensitive. "I've talked to many African American friends," he said. "In our estimation, the picture reflects the stereotypical images that one sees in Western society. The strong Caucasian supporting this weak African American. . . . It's disgusting. I wish The Washington Post would start using more care and sensitivity in the types of pictures and images that it conveys."
Believe it or not, "care and sensitivity" are factored into decisions on which photographs to use, their size and their placement, according to Joseph Elbert, the assistant managing editor in charge of the photographers, a team he describes as the most racially and ethnically diverse at The Post. "The diversity is for this very reason," he said. "We share how we feel about images so we won't be insensitive." To Elbert and others involved in its selection, the picture of the midshipmen depicted "two young men who worked very hard, and they just feel good." He added: "It had universal appeal among the editors. It showed a brotherhood that goes beyond race, to me."
Getting beyond race or ethnicity appears increasingly difficult. Whether the image is of a Serb or an Albanian in Kosovo, or murder suspects in Washington, I've heard from readers who insist that who's in or who's out and the placement of the photo is an editorial comment meant as a personal affront to the aggrieved reader. To take one example: A reader who identified herself as white complained that The Post was bombarding her with too many photographs of blacks. The last straw for her was one showing black teenagers attending a prom sponsored by their church and billed as an alternative to the usual high school dances. What she missed is that the photo and the accompanying story were of that "good news" variety that so many readers say they want.
That said, questionable choices are made on any given day. Take Wednesday, when a front-page photo with the main story from Yugoslavia was coupled with a headline of debatable taste: "Serbian Opposition Raises Its Fist." Prominent in the photo was a man who had no hand. "That's not a very funny joke," said a reader familiar with headline writers' penchant for puns. Another asked, "Why would they have something so crude and insensitive on the cover of this newspaper?" The copy desk chief on the foreign desk said that the headline was meant to be neither "overly clever" nor "malicious." The handless man was thrusting his stump into the air at a protest against the government, and next to him was a man who was waving his clenched fist. The copy editor thought the headline "conveyed the mood of the story." But a photo editor said, "It takes away from the power of the photograph."
In the end, as Elbert says, "It's all subjective." But there is room for even more "care and sensitivity" in assembling the whole package -- photos, captions and headlines.