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Editor's column: Faces not even a mother could love

July 28, 2012
By Per Peterson , Marshall Independent

The Independent received a letter Monday morning from a reader who said she was "appalled" at why this newspaper would publish a photo of the accused Colorado theater gunman and suggested the paper should've put something small on the bottom of the page referencing the story to somewhere inside the paper with no picture of the shooter.

The letter writer questioned why media continues to give people like James Holmes the attention they crave. The topic is debatable, and unless you've worked for a newspaper or TV network, it can be difficult to understand why media continues to plaster these images all over their product.

We certainly aren't in the game of giving criminals, or alleged criminals, extra face time, but at the same time, not running a mug shot won't change anything. This man's photo has been plastered on nearly every front page in the country off and on for the last week. You can't go to a news-based website without seeing it at the top of the home page. It's arguably the biggest story of the year and, like it or not, there is plenty of legitimacy in the old mantra, "If it bleeds, it leads."

We would like nothing more than to publish only "feel-good" stories, and we certainly do write and run plenty of them. However, when it comes to major news stories, many unfortunately are negative and this one definitely bled. And people surely were curious as to what the alleged gunman looked like. On Monday, he made his first court appearance looking like a comic book character. So we ran another photo Tuesday of him in court. Why? That's a question you can ask every other editor in the country who ran the photo in their print and online publications. I say, "How could we not?"

The image, again, was plastered everywhere. Some papers ran it five columns; we ran a much smaller version. Some papers ran as many as three photos of him in the same edition. The guy's been in the papers so much you'd swear he bought ad space.

The most intriguing photo showed the orange-red-haired subject staring straight ahead with a creepy, glazed look in his eyes. It's an image that speaks to the kind of person this guy is - a picture-says-1,000-words kind of photo. You can judge him for yourself, but that judgement will more than likely be swayed by one glimpse of that photo.

Should the Independent have skipped publishing the photo? Some would think so. Then again, sorry, but it's a photo that was just begging to be put out there. This story needed a face.

All that being said, I understand the letter writer's side, too - let's not give this creep any more play than he's already received. Now that everyone knows what Holmes looks like, there's less of a chance you will have to look at his mug shot in your paper every day. I won't promise Holmes' photo won't be in any future editions of the Independent, as this case is sure to be in the "headlines" for months to come and the public has a general curiosity about his appearance, but I have made a note of this particular reader's concerns.

We don't know what the alleged shooter's motive was, what drove him to open fire in a crowded movie theater last week, but whether or not he is mentally ill, part of that motive more than likely came from his desire to get as much attention as he could. If he wanted his "15 minutes," he got it and then some - not from the Independent, but from much larger news sources - and social media - all over the world. People do all sorts of things to get those 15 minutes, but no matter what path they choose, in today's social media world, that 15 minutes is pretty easy to attain.

Holmes is now a celebrity, although not a traditional one. And yes, media made him one. But media didn't create this monster, it just brought it to your doorstep, TV screen and computer monitor. That's what media does with people like bin Laden, McVeigh, Klebold and Harris, Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Loughner, Ted Kaczynski. Their faces and images of their wrath have been burned into our brains. Past generations had their bin Ladens and Loughners, too, only during a time when social media didn't exist. Still, their lives and actions have been well documented, and they will always be a dark part of our history and forever be embedded into the American conscience.

Media won't allow us to forget about them.

Bad people get a lot of press, always have. Look at Jerry Sandusky. While the Independent has published his mug shot only once or twice since the sexual abuse scandal was made public, like with Holmes it's nearly impossible to read a paper or visit an online news site and not see a picture of this monster. Aaron Schaffhausen's another one. He's been charged with killing his three little daughters in Wisconsin. The day after his first court appearance, the Star Tribune ran with a five-column photo of him and his attorney at his videoconferenced arraignment. It wasn't even that clear of an image but the Strib had to run it.

"If it bleeds, it leads," right?

The general public is sure to chalk this up to selling papers. That's as absurd as it is clich. The Independent probably didn't sell any more papers the day after last week's shooting than it normally would have. And if it did, it's my guess it had more to do with an expanded classifieds section than Holmes' mug shot appearing on the top of Page 1. His mug ran because he made news. Big news. Tragic, shocking, stop-you-in-your-tracks, horrifyingly-big news.

Media often get blamed for tooting the horns of bad people. But don't blame media for covering bad people who make news. Blame the bad people for the news they make.



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