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Clinton photo: 'Disrespectful' or 'a telling gesture'?

June 10, 2009 |  3:42 pm

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Reader J.C. Devin of Malibu sent a note of complaint regarding the image that accompanied a June 6 story about a couple who, federal authorities say, conspired for decades to provide classified information to the Cuban government.

The photo of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ran four columns over the 23-inch story and was at the very least, said Devin, "disrespectful."

Wrote Devin: "All those hours of research, fact checking and efforts at journalistic balance were lost when the individual who chose the uncomplimentary [Associated Press] photo of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to accompany your words blew it. The photo, capturing Secretary Clinton in an awkward moment at the news conference, did little to enhance your article or communicate any journalistic integrity of the L.A. Times. The Times' pride in its professionalism should ensure photo choices that support the content of an article and that don't come off as disrespectful."

The caption said, "Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, shown at a news conference in Washington, has ordered an internal investigation, a 'comprehensive damage assessment' and a review of State Department security procedures."

Photo editors respond.

As it turns out, the image wasn't intended to be four columns. Asked about it later, Steve Stroud, deputy director of photography, notes that occasionally a photo will be enlarged to make up the difference when, on deadline, the story comes up short. Stroud thought the photo -- Clinton's expression and all -- was OK, though, saying the image "portrayed a telling gesture, not an awkward moment. Whether the photo is flattering is in the eyes of the reader, but it reflects the secretary of State's comments on American spies working for Cuba. While ordering a national security damage assessment, Clinton's facial expression did not, understandably, warrant a smile."

Deputy Managing Editor Colin Crawford, on the other hand, who oversees the use of visuals, thought the photo of Clinton wasn't great, at any size. He adds a layer of explanation: When the Times can't send its own photographer, Crawford points out, Times editors are left choosing the best of several that come from wire services that did staff the event. In this case, unfortunately, there wasn't a better choice.

Visuals, photographs included, are supposed to add to the story, to draw readers in. Editors try to find the right photography and use it at the right size for its value and what it adds to the story. In this case, though, Crawford see the reader's point, believing the image should have been used smaller -- as originally intended -- or not at all.

Which thinking should be good news to Devin and other readers who might have thought the photo detracted from the news story.

Photo credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press