Tonawanda News

December 5, 2012

DUVALL: Post's photo choice was terrible

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Every so often a news story comes along that not only shocks readers, but forces some deep contemplation on the part of people in my profession whose job it is to report it.

Such a story took place Monday in New York City when a deranged panhandler in a Times Square subway station shoved a man onto the tracks as the train approached. Among the horrified onlookers was a freelance photographer for the New York Post, R. Umar Abbasi.

To hear Abbasi’s side of the story — though The Post has declined to put him forward so he can say it himself — he ran toward the train firing off his camera in the hope that the flash would alert the conductor to stop before he hit and killed Ki-Suck Han. The photos he recorded show Han desperately trying to clamber up the side of the deep subway platform as the train bears down on him. He could not and became pinned between the train and the platform. He died of the resulting injuries.

Some have questioned Abbasi, wondering whether he should have been taking pictures when he could have been helping Han get off the tracks. I find this criticism unfair for several reasons.

First, he was trying to help. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest way to go about it, but there seems to have been a genuine attempt made. Second, the frame The Post ran shows Abbasi a fair distance away from Han. It’s unclear whether he would have been able to reach him in time even if he’d wanted to. Third, if we’re criticizing one person who was trying to help, we should share criticism with everyone on the platform who froze and failed to act.

There is, however, plenty of criticism to heap on Abbasi’s employers at The Post.

The newspaper ran Abbasi’s photo on the front page with the following headline: “DOOMED Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die”.

Thankfully, they stopped short of explicitly stating their front page’s obvious implication: “Isn’t that AWESOME!?”

I literally can’t think of a more insensitive or cynical way to depict a man’s tragic death.

One of the most common critiques from readers to this or any newspaper is that “we’re just trying to sell newspapers.” As a colleague of mine once noted, “You’re damn right. We run a business. Do we criticize a guy working at Sears for trying to sell toasters?”

That may be true — we are a business and we do want you to buy the paper — but it’s also our obligation to sell newspapers responsibly.

We have a long-standing policy here at the News to weigh a difficult or disturbing photo or story’s newsworthiness against the potential effect it will have on family, friends and the larger community. 

It’s my firm belief that there is a way to accomplish our primary and critically important mission of informing readers of news in this community while also being a responsible community institution. It might go without saying, such a policy does not include running a photo of a man who’s about to die accompanied by an over-the-top sensational headline.

Their story goes on to quote Abbasi and others on the scene in heart-wrenching and compelling detail. The story itself is a very impressive bit of spot news reporting, abetted by a little luck in having an employee as an eye-witness. Had The Post left it at that, they’d have won the daily competition between New York metros by scoring the best version of a highly talked-about story.

Instead, how their editors chose to depict this story squandered the efforts of some talented journalists, unfairly called into question a bystander’s actions who was only trying to help and cruelly inflicted unimaginable pain on this man’s family.

If anyone was wondering why people hate the media, I’d put up Tuesday’s New York Post as Exhibit A.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com.