Editor's Note: Disturbing Photograph Tells an Important Story

Oct 1, 2012

Dana Heupel
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Elsewhere in this issue, you will find a graphic photograph of Margie Wade taken by sheriff’s deputy a few hours before the 59-year-old woman died in 2003 in a Hillsboro hospital. It is not our normal practice to publish shocking images, and we seriously weighed the pros and cons before I decided to use it because it tells the story of her last moments in a way that words alone cannot.

The photo accompanies an important article written by George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer of the Belleville News-Democrat. We asked the two investigative reporters to reprise their series of stories originally published in that newspaper earlier this year. Their work exposed how the state agency charged with protecting disabled individuals and investigating potential cases of abuse and neglect failed to do so in the deaths of Wade and at least 52 others, contending — astoundingly — that under Illinois law, residents become ineligible for state services after they die. Margie Wade is a central figure in their article.

Despite what some might think, most editors do not make such decisions lightly. The News-Democrat published the photograph initially after much discussion among editors there. The last thing they — and we — want to do is exploit someone’s misery or invade the privacy of a family in extreme distress. Most often, we will take the conservative route and not select the most graphic images. But in some cases, a photograph is so important to clearly explain a horrific situation that its newsworthiness overrides those deep concerns.

In recent months, some readers and media pundits criticized the New York Times for publishing a photograph of a victim lying in a pool of blood after a mass shooting at the Empire State Building. 

A spokeswoman for the newspaper gave this response to a question from the journalism website poynter.org: “It is an extremely graphic image, and we understand why many people found it jarring. Our editorial judgment is that it is a newsworthy photograph that shows the result and impact of a public act of violence.”

Similarly, many news organizations debated whether to publish an Associated Press photograph that showed a man in mid-air who had jumped or fallen to his certain death from the North Tower of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. 

Some chose to use the photo; others did not. Many of those that did explained to viewers or readers that it depicted how unspeakably horrendous the conditions were inside the building — so unbearable that with death inevitable, the only choice some occupants were left with was how to die.

Unfortunately, such news decisions are not all that unusual. Other examples include the depiction of the burned bodies of private coalition contractors in Iraq who were killed by guerillas and then suspended from a bridge, or of Robert F. Kennedy as he lay dying on the floor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968 immediately after he was shot by an assassin. 

News photographers capture a multitude of images of important events and often don’t even know what they have until they review them afterward. And the number of graphic images is bound to increase now that nearly every cell phone contains a digital camera and every bystander is a potential photographer.

Our intent in publishing the photograph of Margie Wade is not to offend or shock readers but to show the horrible way in which she died. And our intent in asking Pawlaczyk and Hundsdorfer and their editors to reconstruct and update their series for us is to give the News-Democrat’s work the statewide exposure it deserves. 

Although several media organizations ran short stories after the newspaper published its findings, most of them focused primarily on the governor’s or legislature’s after-the-fact decision to look into the deaths, not primarily on the mind-boggling failure of the inspector general for the Illinois Department of Human Services to investigate them in the first place.

***

Please welcome two new members to the Illinois Issues staff:

Rachel Lattimore
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Rachel Lattimore has begun work as associate director for circulation and advertising. Her primary role is to increase paid circulation and sponsorships, as well as promoting the magazine.

She has experience in advertising sales for radio and television stations, as well as a national theater chain. She also worked in marketing for a cellular phone firm and a medical equipment company. And she has been executive director of a nonprofit homeless shelter.

Most recently she was employer relations coordinator for the Career Development Center at the University of Illinois Springfield. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from UIS and expects to receive her master’s in the same field later this year.

Rachel replaces Linda Anderson, who moved to Texas earlier this year.

 

 

Eliot Clay
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Eliot Clay is our new graduate research assistant. He writes for the Noteworthy and People sections of the magazine and helps fact-check all the articles. He also is editor of our annual Roster of State Government Officials, under the supervision 

of managing editor Maureen McKinney.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, with a minor in English literature, from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He is studying at UIS for his master’s degree in public administration.

Eliot also has been a student worker at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services and the Illinois State Board of Education. During the summer, he worked for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in quality assurance. 

Illinois Issues, October 2012