Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Insensitive? In poor taste? Neither?

By · Monday, June 18th, 2012

The yearbook cover of a local middle school here in the Syracuse area caught the attention of some parents, who were upset that the photo montage — student faces forming the design of the school’s mascot — segregated the students by dark faces and white faces.

Check out the story, as published on syracuse.com under the headline, “Photo montage on cover of middle school yearbook segregated students.” Writer Elizabeth Doran quotes a parent, the school superintendent and the company that produced and printed the yearbook.

The explanations and reactions could all be applied to any journalistic situation in which published material upsets readers. A natural question for journalists: Would you have published this photo montage this way? But a more important question: Would you have even thought that the montage might be controversial?

After the fact, it’s easier to answer the question about whether to publish. Before publication, however, the challenge is to anticipate.

Anticipation requires a connection to the audience and thoughtful and careful approaches to content.

In Think Like an Editor, these issues are addressed in two strategies:

The all-important question before publishing is: How do I know what will offend? Strategy 40 is a place to start, with a list of six questions and answers, such as “What would others think?” and “Who is my audience?” Strategy 40 also lists 10 hot buttons to be aware of that might cause readers to be offended.

In a visual world — where computer-generated material such as the yearbook cover is commonplace — attention to taste should be top of mind on any platform.

Advice in yet another strategy in Think Like an Editor also is designed to help journalists navigate their way through tough choices. In Strategy 39: Ethics, the overarching theme is to have a process and follow it. The goal is to be transparent. As we say in the book:

If an outsider asks about a controversial decision and how you reached it, you should be comfortable revealing

These questions point up why it’s important to have diverse voices in a newsroom. They will help with this process because more people with varying views can better anticipate the many “what ifs” about content.

Consider, too, these aspects to the yearbook cover story:

These are the cosmic elements of the story. They will lead you beyond the story of the day and the immediate controversy to a greater sense of meaning for what is happening now. When you want to “think cosmic,” you’ll find more tips and advice in Strategy 13: Structure — Cosmic Graph.

So would you have published the yearbook cover? Do you think the parents deserve to be upset? Do you agree that the school district should be “reviewing yearbook editing procedures and their relationship” with the yearbook publisher?

If you go back and view the reader posts, you’ll have an understanding of the range of reactions. Some people are in strong agreement with the parents; others think the issue is overblown, even silly. Journalists might have the same range of reactions. But the point is to have a good understanding of the sensitive nature of the story, no matter where you stand on it.

And as a journalist, you’ll always want to have a good understanding of why it is imperative that you anticipate and follow a process — regardless of whether you ultimately decide to publish or not to publish.

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