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Today's trust tip: If you publish a graphic image, explain why

Hi there. Joy here.

Journalists often face tough decisions when it comes to whether and how to publish disturbing images. They carefully weigh their responsibility to accurately and compellingly reflect a harsh reality while also avoiding exploitation and respecting the preferences and privacy of both their audience members and the subjects of the images.

As Kelly McBride wrote for Poynter last week, it's not up to newsrooms to shield their communities from hard truths, but they can minimize harm by treating the situation carefully. 

Last week, USA TODAY explained their decision to publish the powerful photo of a father and daughter who drowned at the border.

Standards editor Manny Garcia wrote a column, and his explanation included this information:

  • How the publication of the photo was discussed
  • Who from senior leadership was involved in the conversation
  • Why decisions to publish are made on a case-by-case basis
  • Why the group's judgment was that this image needed to be published
  • How the newsroom handled placement of the photo on the website and across platforms
  • How readers would be warned about the nature of the photo
  • How they communicated their decisions to the rest of the newsrooms in their network

The column is thorough and thoughtful, and I would love it if USA TODAY's readers would take the time to read it. (Note: USA TODAY has been one of our newsroom partners, but we did not work with them on this coverage.)

The most dedicated (or ticked off!) news consumers will read Garcia's column, but most won't. (Just check the page views of editor's columns in general.) So how do we communicate the information in every situation in which people encounter a disturbing image?

Start with this: Boil the editor's column down into two sentences. Write a version that gives enough information to demonstrate that you took the decision seriously. In the case of Garcia's column, I might write something like this:

"After much consideration, our newsroom's senior leadership decided to publish this photo because it powerfully encapsulates the danger and desperation surrounding the situation at the border. We took care with how it is displayed and worked to provide context and warn readers of its graphic nature. We invite you to read more about that decision here, and send us your feedback." 

Then put a version of that message everywhere people might first encounter the photo — in social posts, in newsletters and in text and broadcast stories. 

Remember, your community is not giving you the benefit of the doubt. They are often assuming that you sensationalize stories on purpose, that you enjoy being shocking and that, as some noted this week, you treat some life-and-death situations with more respect than others.

TRY THIS: Think of an example of when your newsroom decided to publish a disturbing or graphic photo. What were the factors involved? Write a one- or two-sentence explanation, then think of how you could share it. In a Facebook post? At the top of a story? Mock it up and share it with your colleagues so you're ready for a future breaking news situation. 

— Joy Mayer, Trusting News director

Related: Read what we mean by transparency in journalism, and see these examples of how our newsroom partners put it into practice.

Would you like free training? We're taking applications until July 15 for our free Trust 101 online course. We're also launching a webinar series with Poynter and accepting requests for personalized advice

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Trusting News aims to demystify trust in news and empower journalists to take responsibility for actively demonstrating credibility and earning trust. It is a project of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute

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