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C-J responds to picture complaints

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There were approximately 100 photos taken during this year's basketball game between Louisville and Kentucky, and on the day after the game The Courier-Journal chose to run the following one on its front page.

The picture naturally deflected attention from U of L's first victory over UK in four years, and instantly became a piece of ammunition for Wildcat fans.

Angry Louisville fans and proponents of professionalism flooded the Courier with complaints, and public editor Pam Platt responded to those complaints in this morning's paper.

Some of the comments registered by angry, offended and/or baffled readers: "Awful," "an embarrassment," "horrible decision," "poor judgment," "distasteful," "a mystery" and "shame on you."

I have to admit I was a little baffled by the response. Aren't sports the province of the ubiquitous fanny pat? Aren't players in each other's faces all the time during athletic matches? Yes and yes. So what's a little game-time hug in that universe?

Well, apparently this photo crossed a line for some readers, some of whom demanded an apology and/or an explanation.

There will be no apology. However, I think an explanation is in order because it encompasses what's involved in selecting photos to illustrate stories -- and what can happen if context is lost on, or not apparent to, the news consumer, which is what I think happened in this instance.

...

After looking at all the game photos submitted for publication and online posting, Bryan settled on the Palacios/Smith shot that was printed because the picture showed the game's top scorers and it showed them in a moment of celebration, with one congratulating the other.

Bryan made the selection, but he said four other editors looked at the photo and no one raised any red flags.

Once the picture was published, we started hearing from readers who begged to differ with the selection. If the editor saw celebration, some readers saw a kiss.

So, what happened? Why did a veteran editor not see what some readers saw in the photo?

There's no easy answer to that question, but here's a couple of thoughts: Sometimes editors do not see what readers see. And sometimes readers see more than what's there.

I go back to my old theory about content being something like a Rorschach test, and people bringing their own ideas and baggage to what they see and read -- or what they don't see and don't read into words and images. That's why editors go over stories and photographs -- to catch and correct awkward or erroneous statements and impressions, and to question possible perceptions.

I was not bothered by this photograph because of taste issues but because of informational issues:

Although it was technically a good shot, and met Bryan's criteria, I had more questions than answers when I looked at it. Simply put, it didn't tell the story for me. I found nothing distasteful or embarrassing about it, I was just puzzled by it -- and its lack of context -- and I think it distracted from the news it was supposed to convey. Other shots, which Bryan did not consider as strong, did not have that ambiguity and probably would not have had the effect this one did on those we heard from.

As for the theory floated by some readers, that this was a purposeful attempt to rile or humiliate Cards fans, it doesn't really deserve a response but Bryan has one: We're not in the business of offending or agitating readers.

Speaking of which, the negative reaction to this sports photo is unprecedented for Upshaw and Bryan, they say.

Which makes me wonder: What are you thinking? What is it about two athletes sharing a moment of physical and emotional closeness in the middle of a big game, in the middle of a basketball court, that puts some people off so much?

For the past few years I've been of the belief that the Courier - though a far cry from its proverbial "heyday" that I've heard so much about - gets far more crap than it deserves. But this is beyond preposterous.

It's one thing to play ignorant or to be patronizing, but to do both at the same time is infuriating.

"Not in the business of offending or agitating readers?" Please. The C-J has utilized the Gregg Doyel and Bill O'Reilly (this isn't political) school of "you don't necessarily have to believe it as long as it sparks conversation" journalism for multiple years now, and that's OK, I've accepted it. I understand that print is dying and that money has to be made, so I don't care if you print absurdly outrageous or offensive stories and columns as long as you give me some quality professional pieces in between. This is the way things are now, I don't like it, you probably don't like it, but don't try and tell me that it isn't so.

You weren't bothered because you found it distasteful or embarrassing, but because it "didn't tell the story" for you? This is exactly what I would have said when I was 14-years-old, editor of the school paper, and had come under fire for running a picture of a teacher I didn't like which showed him about to shake someone's hand, but made it appear as if he were fondling a student. It's the classic 8th grade style of arguing: You admit that there might have been a mistake made and that you had a problem with what took place, but you "never even considered" that the blatantly obvious thing which has landed you in trouble might have been deemed inappropriate, and you resent the implication that this was done maliciously. I talked my way out of at least five detentions in junior high, and I'm confident that it was more because the powers that be liked me than because my arguments were even remotely believable or persuasive.

And then finally: "What are you thinking?"

Well, since you asked...I'm thinking the same thing that everyone with a properly functioning pair of eyes and brain was thinking when they looked at their paper on the morning of Jan. 6. I'm thinking the same thing that both of the females in my family - who couldn't tell you the difference between a three-pointer and a touchdown - thought when they looked at the paper, chuckled and said, "oh my God." I'm thinking the same thing that every one of my friends who called me the next day were thinking. And I'm thinking the same thing that a current Courier-Journal employee who told me the choice to run the photo was "embarrassing" was thinking.

I don't practice professionalism here, and I know I'm just a faceless (it's pretty) dude with a blog, but that's not going to stop me from going ahead and dishing out some advice which I'm certain will fall on deaf ears: If you genuinely want to shake the label of "once great paper" (and I really hope that you do), don't do this. Don't run things that are obviously going to cause a fuss and then be arrogantly condescending when it comes to fruition. Though the comment sections underneath your stories may lead you to believe otherwise, people aren't that stupid, and now more than ever you need to keep them from flocking to other places where they won't be treated like they are.