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April 11, 2021

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From the Newsroom: Selecting photos a balancing act

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

In a community where law and order generally prevails, February was an unusual month. There were not one, not two, but three shootings involving Vancouver police. A fourth occurred on Thursday, as I was writing this column.

Of course, we reported each of the stories online and in print.

In recent years, officer-involved shootings have evoked a lot of public reaction and interest around the nation, so we knew these would be big stories for our readers. Our goal was to have our coverage be as accurate and complete as possible, given our deadlines and public demand for immediate information.

The biggest issue turned out to be what photographs to publish after the third shooting, which involved a mentally ill and homeless man who reportedly was waving one or more firearms at people at the corner of West 12th and Jefferson streets. While the incident is still under investigation, it appears Michael Pierce refused police commands to drop two realistic-looking replica handguns, and was shot in the chest by Officers Christopher Douville and Andrew Dunbar. Pierce died on the sidewalk.

We heard the incident on our police radio as it unfolded, and Photo Editor Amanda Cowan quickly went to photograph the scene, which is only about five or six blocks from The Columbian. A veteran photojournalist, she knew not to get too close to the scene, but with a telephoto lens she was able to make some dramatic photos.

Some of her photos were possibly too dramatic. In one frame, she captured a Vancouver Fire Department paramedic using what appears to be a heart monitor to check Pierce’s body for signs of life. Another frame showed Pierce lying on the ground, dead, with his face and bare torso visible. A third photo, taken a few minutes later, showed his body covered with a yellow tarp, with officers in the background. Amanda also brought back a selection of other photos that showed crime scene tape, police cars and bystanders, but not the actual scene nor the body.

We knew this was front-page news. But what photographs should accompany it? We want to tell the story visually, but also take into account the emotions of readers, Pierce’s friends and family, and Officers Douville and Dunbar and their families. The public has a right to know what happened, but what’s insensitive?

You could make an argument that almost nothing is too graphic to show these days. We live in an era where network television routinely shows police shootings, dead bodies and gore as entertainment. I don’t enjoy these programs, so I don’t watch them, and I am guessing a substantial number of readers don’t, either.

We took the photos into a conference room and scrutinized them on a large screen. None were, in my opinion, overly bloody or grotesque.

But what about the balance between informative and insensitive? It took a conversation with all of the stakeholders to choose the front-page lead photo.

None of us thought that the photo that showed Pierce’s face and torso would have been a good choice. For one thing, he would have been identifiable, and we didn’t know if his family had heard the news, or even if they lived locally. We didn’t have that issue with the photo of him being checked by the paramedic, because the photo was shot from a different angle and his face wasn’t visible. And, of course, Pierce’s body was completely obscured in the frame showing the yellow tarp.

After some conversation, we chose the photo with the yellow tarp for the lead front-page image. We thought it reflected the impact and importance of the news without being insensitive. We did publish the photo with the paramedic smaller, on Page A2. Two other photos, one of the overall scene and the other of the bystanders, completed the package.

What would you have done? Feel free to weigh in by email or by leaving a comment on the online version of this column.

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