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The Globe and Mail

Public Editor: At times, shock does have value

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

The Globe and Mail

Spread over two pages one day last week, the photo was arresting – and unsettling.

It showed a soldier from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) – a faction in the Liberian civil war 20 years ago – executing a man at close range. According to the caption, the man had pleaded for his life before being stripped naked and shot. The image was taken a split second after the executioner fired, his stance almost casual and just one hand on his automatic weapon. His target is recoiling, and you can see a spray of blood and other, likely brain, matter.

A very tough thing to look at, especially in the middle of a newspaper, where it's hard to warn readers what's coming (and hard for readers to avert their gaze).

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But first a little context. The photo illustrates an instalment of Conflict Photographers, a series written by Anthony Feinstein, who is a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Feinstein is an expert in the psychological trauma that warfare can inflict upon journalists, and his year-long series focuses on those really on the front lines of reporting: the photographers. They cannot just stand back at a safe distance and observe.

In this case, the photographer is Corinne Dufka, an American celebrated for her ability to capture conflict and for her persistence. Although seriously injured by an anti-tank mine in Bosnia, she cut short her convalescence to get back to the action.

Ms. Dufka took the Liberia photo in 1996, when the NPFL and its infamous leader, Charles Taylor, were fighting for control of the country he was to terrorize for the better part of a decade. She told Dr. Feinstein that she had intervened to stop other executions (and one castration), but this one happened too quickly. Even recording it put her at great risk. (Click here to see the photo. Warning: Graphic content)

As the most arresting elements in news coverage, photos often invoke reader reaction. Consider those from the war in Iraq showing charred bodies of American contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah; and, more recently, the body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi on a beach in Turkey.

Images of the bloodied and injured from this week's terrorist bombs in Brussels have prompted no complaints, perhaps because the violence is a key part of the story. But some readers said they found the one from Liberia disgusting.

"How horrified I am to have seen someone being murdered on a two-page spread. I understand that you are trying to explain … the terrible acts of humanity – but the picture is unnecessary and warrants a warning."

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A caller said she couldn't read the article, she was so thrown off. Another reader called it "self-congratulatory" journalism, saying the decision to print the photo was "callous in and of itself," but to do so "in an article devoted not to educating Globe readers about the tragic circumstances that produced the crime … is quite frankly stunning."

The reader felt the focus shouldn't be on the impact that events such as these have on journalism, but that, in fact, was the purpose. "On certain occasions," says Devin Slater, head of editorial design at The Globe, "we must be uncompromising in our photo selection, and publish images that are graphic or disturbing to readers. Crimes and injustices against humankind must be witnessed in order for us to realize and take action. Conflict Photographers is about the women and men who took the risks to capture these images, often with great physical or mental harm to themselves."

Photo editor Moe Doiron noted that photojournalists like Ms. Dufka "are often the only independent witnesses to atrocities … and, for that, we have a heavy responsibility to ensure that these images, however disturbing, are never hidden or filed away."

The Globe's published standard for showing photos that depict trauma and death deems it justified, "provided the image is historically relevant and/or advanced the story in a serious and considered manner; conveys information relevant to the story and is not intended primarily to shock readers."

In my view, this photo, graphic as it may be, was crucial to the story, and Dr. Feinstein has done important work on the psychological effects of war on journalism. But at the same time, such photos need to be used sparingly and only when it helps the readers understand a serious issue. Journalists, like the medical profession, can be somewhat desensitized to photos and traumatic coverage in general. That is why editors need to discuss the impact of such decisions, a discussion which happened in this case.

Recently, I spoke to a group of journalism students at the University of Toronto Scarborough. They expressed concern that, while you can warn an online or broadcast audience that an unsettling image is coming, there really is no way to do so for readers about to turn the page.

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That said, we cannot avoid the truth. We can't overlook the essence of what Ms. Dufka captured: the naked evil unleashed in Liberia – the brutality and inhumanity that are all too common to warfare. Shocking as it may be, anyone who sees her photo can understand why she hung up her camera and is now a researcher for Human Rights Watch in West Africa.

And why Charles Taylor now sits in a British prison sentenced to 50 years for what the judge called "some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history."

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