- UPDATE (10:38 a.m., Nov. 25, 2009) — By my general reckoning, at least thousands of people know there’s more to this story, as of this past Friday. Various editors, journalism school faculty and I have since worked to remedy the situation. Now that we’ve tied up our loose ends, I believe now is the time to clarify exactly what happened — at least on my part. Please read my blog entry for the second (and final) component to this incident.
“Hello, this is Chris.”
“Hi Chris, this is Josh. You need to tell me the truth about what happened in court yesterday. And don’t lie to me, because lying isn’t going to get you anywhere.”
That’s how, via a phone call today at 9:13 a.m., I found out I was in trouble.
Yesterday, I spent almost six hours in the Boone County Courthouse as the pool photographer for the fourth day of William Clinch’s first-degree murder trial. Armed with a 300mm lens, a 70-200mm and a 17-35mm, I knew the following before I entered the courtroom at 12:45 p.m.:
- Do not photograph the jury.
- Do what the judge tells me to do. Do not anger or even mildly irritate the judge.
- Be respectful and quiet. This means not firing off more than three frames at a time.
- Do not photograph the jury.
I photographed the jury.
That is why:
- the Missourian reporter was kicked out of the courtroom this morning,
- the photo director (Josh, above) called me,
- I had to explain exactly what happened to several editors,
- I could have been put in jail for contempt of court,
- I spent the next hour tearfully worrying and wondering what would happen next,
- I wrote a letter of apology to the judge,
- I ended up on A1 of The Columbia Daily Tribune and
- I am writing this blog post.
More specifically, I am writing this blog post to clarify exactly what happened. I believe in transparency, and I believe that other journalism students and journalists can learn from my mistakes.
Therefore, I am laying out everything that happened. This is the truth and is consistent with my letter of apology and my explanation to various Missourian editors and colleagues. And the truth is long, so this blog post is long. But I hope you’ll keep reading.
First, below is my sketched version of the photograph in question. For obvious reasons, I cannot and will not post the actual photograph.
Second, here’s a diagram of the courtroom. This will help explain a few things later in this entry.
Now, here’s what happened in the courtroom yesterday:
- I arrived at the courthouse at 12:30 p.m. and was in the courtroom around 12:45 p.m. The reporter met me there and told me that the photographer on Wednesday had moved all over the place to get his photos. This, to me, sounded as if I had more freedom and mobility than I expected.
- For the first 30 minutes, I remained in Column C (the pool-side column of rows). There’s a reason why photographers and videographers generally stay in this area: They can get footage of the witness without getting the jury in the background. (Whereas, if a photographer or videographer stood at the back of Column A, it would be extremely difficult to capture the witness without getting the jury in the background.)
- After half an hour, I decided to change vantage points. I moved to X1 (see diagram), where I was careful to avoid photographing the jury.
- Shortly after I moved to X1, the judge sent the court marshal over to where I was. The following dialogue occurred:
- Marshal: “Are you taking photos of the jury?”
- Me: “No.”
- Marshal: “Are you taking photos of the witness?”
- Me: “Yes. I’m taking photos of the witness, the judge and the attorneys.”
- Marshal: “Okay.”
- After the court marshal left me, I decided to play it safe and move back to Column C. I remained there for the rest of the trial session, and moved only between rows within Column C. I had taken no more than a dozen photos while I was in Column B. None of those was of the jury.
- In the last 30 minutes of the trial, I noticed the man with his arm around the woman at XX (see diagram). I moved to X2, where I took five photos at 35mm (with a 17-35/2.8).
- The first two frames included the jury, in the background and completely out of focus. The second of these frames was the one that eventually ran on the Missourian Web site and that I sketched above.
- The lines you see coming from X2 in the diagram represent what was visible within those first two frames.
- After I saw that I’d caught the jury in the frames, I decided to play it safe again. So I moved to my right and shot the couple from a slightly different angle. This meant that in the next three frames, I captured the same situation but without the jury in the background.
- When I returned to the newsroom, I downloaded all my photos and selected about 20 of them, from which my editor could make the final edit. One of those selected photos was the second photo in that five-photo sequence (with the jury in the background); another of those selected photos was one of the last three that did not have the jury in the background.
- My editor went over my edit and, among three other photos of witnesses and attorneys, chose the photo that had the jury in the background. Once I captioned the photos, they were out of my hands.
- The photos ran on-line. Only one made it in print.
So yes, that photo included the jury, which is a violation of court rules. But I didn’t think it would be a problem — after all, none of the jurors is even faintly recognizable because all of them are completely out of focus.
Here’s what happened today, as best as I can piece it together:
- The judge threw the Missourian reporter out of the courtroom this morning, citing the photo that had run on-line.
- Word spread throughout Missourian leadership. Josh called me and asked for an explanation. I gave him my account of what happened and got the impression that the judge/court thought I had lied to the court marshal and had actually taken that photo before the court marshal approached me. Josh told me the Missourian reporter had been thrown out this morning.
- I went upstairs to the newsroom to talk with Missourian executive editor Tom Warhover. (Warhover, who was also my Advanced Reporting instructor last semester, is probably the Missourian affiliate whom I respect most, and he is the only editor I’ve ever had who can make me cry. I hate disappointing him, and you can bet I broke down while he grilled me.)
- Warhover had me draw a diagram of the courtroom, tell him what happened yesterday in chronological order and show him the photo in question. He then left to make some phone calls.
- I sat in the photo office, still in tears, for a few more minutes.
- Warhover called Josh, Stephanie (another photo editor), the editor who had chosen my photos last night and me to his office. The two priorities, he said, were getting the reporter back into the courtroom and keeping me out of jail for contempt of court. He said this meant he had to “throw me under the bus” in the Columbia Daily Tribune‘s article about the incident. Warhover also said that if the judge called me in for contempt of court, The Missourian would stand with and behind me — meaning, he, Josh and the paper’s attorney would go to court alongside me.
- Still crying, I said, “I honestly don’t care what happens to me. I’m just upset about the reporter. I want her back in there.”
- Right when I said that, Warhover’s phone rang. According to the court’s communications director, the judge was still angry but would let the reporter back inside and would not call me in for contempt.
- I spent the next 20 minutes writing a letter of apology to the judge. And that’s the end of that, for my part.
That is my account of this entire courtroom photography faux pas. If I had been called in for contempt of court, I would have sworn that this account is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.
But even though that’s the end of that for my part, it’s not the end. The Tribune — an afternoon paper — ran the story on A1 today, and according to several people, everyone in the newsroom was talking about it. The story has filtered down to people in pre-Missourian journalism classes, as well. I would be surprised if there’s a single member of the journalism school faculty who doesn’t know something about the incident.
And because it seems the court and judge believe I lied to the court marshal, I’m afraid I’m being painted as a liar.
Yes, I told the court marshal near the beginning of the trial session that I was not photographing the jury.
Yes, near the end of the trial session, I shot two frames that had the jury in the background.
But I don’t think I’m a liar. My focus was completely on the couple, not on anyone else. And I intentionally shot those three next frames without the jury in there. And I chose one of each — one with the jury, one without — to show my editor. And she chose the photo with the jury.
[That said, I'm not assigning complete blame to my editor. Another photographer who was in the office at that time later told me she heard me tell my editor not to use that photo because the jury was visible. I only vaguely remember this. I don't remember it specifically or confidently enough to swear on it. That's why, when talking to Missourian leadership, I took as much of the blame as I could.]
Long story short, here are the lessons I’ve learned:
- Do not photograph the jury. Period.
- Even if the jury would be completely out of focus and in the background, do not photograph the jury. Period.
- Even if you have good photos that have the jury out of focus and in the background, do not select them to be shown to your editor.
- There are times when you need to stand up to explain and defend yourself, and there are times to accept what’s happening and apologize. If I had been called in for contempt, that would have been the time for standing up and defending myself. Because the judge did not call me in, that was the time for apologizing.
- Don’t make mistakes.
- But it’s a fact of life: You can’t avoid making mistakes.
- And if you’re going to make honest mistakes, any good paper and any good editor will stand with you and stand behind you.
- Do not photograph the jury.
If you made it this far into this entry, I appreciate your patience and your willingness to understand the situation. I hope this entry has clarified the situation and that fellow journalism students and journalists can learn from the mistakes I made.