The body shot

24 Aug

Good afternoon,

Classes began here at the University of Idaho on Monday and the campus community was immediately dealing with one of those uminaginable tragedies that happens somewhere else.

Monday night, a former UI psychology professor shot and killed a graduate student. The professor, Ernesto Bustamonte, killed Katy Benoit in the backyard of her apartment just off campus. Tuesday morning, Bustamonte was found dead, the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, in a nearby motel room.

Good reporting by hard-digging journalists will produce the incident details demanded by students, faculty and staff. The university, typically cautious and likely following the advice of its legal staff, is saying almost nothing about the dead student and very little about her killer even though Bustamonte apparently was fired or forced to resign because of a student complaint.

Until more details are uncovered, the campus will continue to simmer with speculation, rumor and misinformation.  There is a transparency argument to be made here, but that is not the purpose of  this post.

Instead, I would like my ethics students to weigh in on a photo decision made by editors of  The Argonaut, the university’s student newspaper. The Argonaut staff did an excellent job covering the unfolding events Tuesday morning, making good use of social media and the paper’s website to keep the university community informed.

Argonaut photographer (and ethics class survivor) Nick Groff was apparently the only photographer to get a shot of authorities wheeling away the body of Bustamonte, encased in a black body bag. Argonaut editors debated using the photo for a few minutes before deciding to post it on the paper’s website. Here is a link to the report and photo.

In explaining the decision to my freshman media survey course this morning, Argonaut Managing Editor Elisa Eiguren (another ethics class survivor) said editors debated whether or not the photo was offensive, whether or not it would generate criticism, whether or not it violated the privacy of either the victim or the shooter. In the end, she said, editors decided the photo got to the essence of the story, portraying events in a way that words alone could not.

Groff told me the paper has taken considerable heat from people who said the photo is too sensational, is offensive or intrusive. But others have said they think the photo tells an important aspect of the story.

To my ethics students: What do you think? Should The Argonaut have posted the photo? Given the circumstances facing Argonaut journalists Tuesday morning, what is the right thing to do?




17 Responses to “The body shot”

  1. judge3690 August 25, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    I don’t see a problem with running the photo, especially as it is the only photo available that seems to best serve this extremely important story. In today’s multimedia-centric world, a picture is often worth more than the proverbial 1,000 words.

    I think the picture in this case has merit for a few reasons. First, it provides a sense of closure to those who may have felt threatened by such a personality, as they can see the body bag; other students can be sure that this person will never do a similar act of aggression again.

    Second, in terms of graphic/blatant photos, it’s not that bad. It’s not like a picture of the corpse itself in the motel room or other gruesome imagery. Besides, I think that while it may have been sensational 100 years ago, we as a society are less affected by scenes and discussion of violence, especially as events occur and are covered more frequently.

    I honestly don’t see the big deal here: It’s just a black bag on a stretcher, albeit one with a corpse inside. You see shots of crash victims or fallen soldiers on stretchers and in body bags; why should the surrounding events affect this, especially since there is no possible threat of revenge or further aggression by any of the involved parties?

    Jonathan Gradin

  2. lucia1025 August 26, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    Response to “The Body Shot”

    I agree with Jonathan. I think the picture is more of a confirmation that Bustamonte is really dead. I mean people can tell you a million times and you can read about it over and over, but the picture is the proof.

    As an editor, I think you would have to worry about offending people. In this case however, I think the risk is worth it. Also if the Argonaut is the only one to have this picture and there have a leg up on their big shot competitions (aka the bigger newspapers) why not. Plus, the Argonaut is a college based newspaper the likeliness of someone getting offended by the picture I think would be a lot less likely considering their reader’s age group and generation.

    Lucia Sanchez

  3. Ann Truesdell August 26, 2011 at 8:13 pm #

    I agree with both of the above posts. I think that it was a good photo that told the story. I wasn’t offended by the picture. I think there was a shock-factor to the photo that helped the story. I think that because the Argonaut is a college newspaper it can be more liberal in decisions like this.

    Ann Truesdell

  4. bpack7933 August 27, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    I think the Argonaut was right in using the picture. We see images like this everyday and I think it holds essence and aids in telling the story. Right now we are very shocked that something like this could even happen in our area, but we must remember that the world doesn’t stop for the facts. Look at the images from Virginia Tech, they captivated us and allowed for others to connect and move forward in the grieving process. As hard as it must have been, I think the Argonaut staff did a good job in removing themselves from the situation and thinking like reports in a sound and ethical manner.

  5. hill4716 August 27, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

    I agree with all of the above responses. How original of me.
    I don’t think that there is anything really offensive in the use of the photo. Yes, it may be sad for the families of the parties involved, but no more sadness than in the event itself.
    The body is in a bag, far enough away that you only know a body is in it because of the situation. For all anyone knows, that bag could be full of puppies and lollipops and happiness.
    Where I’m going with this is: the picture itself is not offensive, it is a bag. It is not ethically wrong to show a dead man as being dead. I fully support the Argonaut using this photo.
    Some news sources have used pictures of campus buildings, or even the U of I sign to signify where the event happened. I think this picture should be used even more because it actually has something to do directly with the story.

    Rachel Hill.

  6. kise5805 August 28, 2011 at 11:57 pm #

    I, too, agree with each of the above posts. I could see how this image might offend certain people (i.e. Bustamonte’s family). However, in today’s day and age, it’s near impossible to avoid offending at least one person. I think the amount of minds actually put to ease by this photo far outweigh those who might have taken offense to it.

    The image definitely has some shock value to it. In the grand scheme of things, it’s PG (13ish) though. It would have been a completely different story if we could see body parts, or the actual crime scene — but we can’t. Readers are not able to see anything more than a zipped up body bag.

    I’ve seen images far worse than this run in much larger newspapers, that reach out to more people. For example, pictures of mangled cars in an accident, or these that the New York times recently ran regarding the hurricane: Obviously these are photos of a different nature, but they have the power to offend more people than this photo that the Argonaut ran. Maybe that’s just me though.

    On an entirely different note, newspaper photography is an art form. The fact that Groff was able to obtain this image before anybody else is great, and says a lot about his talent.

    In conclusion, I think it would have been silly not to run the photo. When producing a newspaper, it’s all about pairing that perfect photo with the story. This image is just that — the perfect photo. Nothing else could have illustrated such a prominent story nearly as well.

    Britt Kiser

  7. Kevin Bingaman August 29, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    I agree with most of what has been said here. I think the image was a powerful one, that went a long ways into telling the story without a single word being used. True, it might be offensive to some, but I think the image does far more good than harm. It was a bold move for the Argonaut, but one I think paid off.

  8. ameliapoole August 29, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    I can kind of see how there could be a problem with seeing a dead body. I for one don’t have any need to see one. But Bustamante’s body was in the bag. There was no bloody arm hanging out of it. Nor was his wound shown in any of the pictures. The media has shown coffins of soliders coming home from Iraq. Is that any different? I don’t know, but I was just wondering if anyone had a different view on that.

  9. jcorona0108 August 31, 2011 at 7:29 am #

    I agree 100 percent with the previous post. I think that the Argonaut did the right thing. The picture captures the story and it gives closure to all rumors. I also agree with Britt, in the fact that in news paper it is all about pairing the perfect photo with the story. Which like I have mentioned before, it’s exactly what this photo provides. There has been far worst images printed before and various magazines and news papers. Not saying that it is right or justifying them, but simply stating that the picture in my opinion is perfect. I find the picture that the Moscow Daily news printed more offensive.
    Also regardless of how people feel about the photo we must admit that it is indeed a great photo. Let’s also not forget that fact that it was taken by one a formal UI student, not other reporter got this photo. I just wanted to give a little credit to the staff of the Argonaut for doing a great job covering this story.

  10. Caitlin Stagg August 31, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    I agree with many of the comments already posted. I believe that it was the right decision for The Argonaut staff to run the photo. Of course they will get some heat from readers about the intensity of the photo but I think that the whole ordeal the community has gone through during this horrific event has been much more intense than this picture.
    This picture does a good job of being concise and to the point, putting closure to any rumors going around.
    Being a member of The Argonaut staff, I am proud to say that I think this whole situation was handled very well and with the grace and maturity of a professional newspaper. This image was just one of many challenges for the student newspaper and it was handled well.

  11. brandoncary23 August 31, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    In my opinion the body shot isnt really a big deal. It isnt like there was blood and gore in the photo. I do feel like it is a pretty intense but this is also a very intense story that hits close to home for a lot of students and staff at our university. In my personal opinion this photo shows closure to a tragic event. The photo is the culmination of the entire story.

  12. Shandy Lam September 1, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    I think the Argonaut handled this just as they should have. The body shot was not of the victim, but of the murderer and it was as tasteful as a picture of a dead body can be. It did not show blood, but instead depicted a sense of closure for a tight knit town that was struggling to understand and searching for answers. I agree with most of the responses posted above.

  13. rachellane9 September 6, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    I would have to agree with a lot of the other comments agreeing that the body shot was perfectly appropriate because it wasn’t a picture of the victim and there arent any faces in teh photo. I think also it puts the public at ease that this killer is no longer out there and putting the public at danger. I think that it was also very smart of the Argonaut to post this picture because it gives the public something to visualize instead of making there own assumptions. I also think that because it didnt show blood or even the faces of the people taking the body out there makes me think that there really isnt any reason to why the picture shouldnt be used?

  14. sarahyama September 15, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    Whoa — the Argonaut editors said they couldn’t identify the body as Bustamante and did not identify it as such. It could have been any body and that was reflected in cutline. So was the body shot a false sense of comfort? Can we even argue that the photo provided a sense of ease for readers? What if the body was another victim? — getting a little off topic.
    The shot was appropiate and I agree with their defense. I would have printed the photo as well.They did excellent work on this story and a darn good job getting a powerful shot that no one else had.
    Everyone keeps talking about blood and gore. Has anyone looked at the Pulitzer winners? The “Sea of Sadness” and “Death?” Powerful stuff. What would an argument be for “blood and gore” there? Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a large difference between what is acceptable in a local paper and what is acceptable in the Washington Post. But, when there is a powerful photo present that tells a story in a way that no written word could, how do you say no to the photo?

    • sarahyama September 15, 2011 at 9:05 am #

      I forgot to add “Burn” … I couldn’t remember the title.

  15. Samantha Storms September 16, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    This photo screams investigative journalism…I am proud to say this was from my school newspaper’s phtographer! I would have ran this photo because it shows the reality of the situation from all sides.

  16. samanthacampbellpaullas October 30, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    I agree with the decision they made to use the photo. I agree that is shows the situation in a way that words cannot. It really brings it home when people are able to see what happened and not just hear about it. I do not think the photo was offensive, there was no blood or limbs hanging out, everything was contained inside the body bag. People have the right to know and see what is happening in situations like this that affect and entire community. I think the photographer and the paper did a great job.

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