June: Media need photos to tell the story

2014 Columns

In early May the newspaper I work for, the Wisconsin State Journal, requested the official portraits of the Madison police officers involved in the fatal shooting a few days earlier of a man police say had just stabbed two women to death.

Although he’d released the officers’ names, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval initially balked at releasing their photos. Persuaded by the city attorney that he had no grounds to withhold them, Koval relented.

But in a letter to the media, which he also posted on his blog, Koval expressed his misgivings, asking whether the officers had had “sufficient time and resources to begin the arduous process of healing in the wake of having had to take the life of another.”

“Is it truly fair (or relevant) that we see the face of an officer that was not a public figure at noon but then elevated to that status by 1 p.m. after a shooting has occurred?” Koval wrote. “How has the public been deprived (or served) by seeing a photo of the officer when the name has already been revealed?”

Koval’s reasons for initially withholding the photos reflect a very real, human concern for one’s fellow workers. Helpfully, Koval added that he was not trying to thwart the media’s oversight of the department.

Yet, Wisconsin’s open records law is written to avoid such arbitrary decisions. Legislators intended that the law be “construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access,” with records being denied “only in an exceptional case.”

There’s no question the photos are public. But is publishing them fair?

First, that is a decision for news organizations alone to make. One Madison network — WMTV (Ch. 15) — chose not to run the photos. But no one is served when records custodians pre-empt those decisions for us.

Running pictures of people with our stories is what we do. It helps convey the humanity and personality of the people we write about. Photos are news content, the same as stories, headlines and graphics.

That’s especially true when a person is the subject of a story. Prominently featuring someone in an article but not showing his or her likeness only serves to cloak the person in a state of quasi-anonymity. A face makes the person real.

Like most people caught up in traumatic events, these officers didn’t choose to have their names and photos in the newspaper. But they also know they run a higher-than-normal risk of becoming involved in something newsworthy, like the use of deadly force. It’s part of the job they signed on to do.

Sometimes, that scrutiny can take the form of harassment, as Koval noted in his letter, with officers in high-profile events being subjected to cruel comments. Yet, the boorish behavior of a few doesn’t change the fact that these officers are accountable — to the law and their fellow citizens.

From the little we know of what happened the day Madison officers shot and killed Londrell Johnson — wielding the knife he’d just used to slay two women and stab a third person — I think most people would want to know who these officers were, not to humiliate them but to thank them.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Phil Brinkman is city editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.