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Graphic Photos

The prosecutors in the trial of the man who opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in late 2012 are asking the judge to grant access to graphic photos in the case only to jurors, not the public, AP’s Sadie Gurman reported recently.

The photos include those from the crime scene and of autopsies. As part of their request for limited access, prosecutors cite the wishes of the victims’ families, who say that having the photos made public will add to their trauma. They also say their loved ones should have the dignity of privacy.

Gurman’s report includes the perspective of Steven Zansberg, an attorney and the current president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, who says that one way for people to keep a watchful eye on their government is to see what prosecutors are presenting as evidence in this death-penalty case.

If the judge decides the photos will be public, journalists will have to decide which of them, if any, they will let through the gates. They will have to decide if there’s any benefit, and if so, whether it justifies overriding the families’ request.

These questions recall the case study in Chapter 2 of this website’s companion text. From the positions the prosecutors and Zansberg take here, we can again see the conflict between humaneness on the one hand and truth telling and autonomy on the other. If journalists withhold the photos, will it look like the families influenced editorial decisions? Would the journalists be withholding important contextual truth from the audience?

Assessing whether using the photos furthers justice is another challenge. Would they really help people decide how fair the prosecutors are? Is there another way for journalists to provide enough information less injurious to the families?

I think about the graphic photos made public in the 2012-13 Jodi Arias murder trial. Anyone could and can link to them from mainstream websites, including the Huffington Post. Have any benefits accrued by these photos being public and available? Are people more informed or better citizens as a result of seeing pictures like these? Have people used these pictures to evaluate the prosecutors in that case?

I don’t know. But even if the answer to these three questions is no, one could make the case that the public is better served if the default is openness. But if the public reads openness as sensationalism, it could further erode their confidence in journalists.

—Faron Scott

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