Tahlequah Daily Press

February 22, 2013

Sometimes the image is the story


TAHLEQUAH — As the story about the local high school student who shot and killed a pit bulldog with an arrow continues to unfold, the details may divide not only the local community, but people across the globe.

Late last week, the Humane Society of Cherokee County alerted the Press to a disturbing Facebook post made by Caisen Green. Though Green posted the photo to his private account, someone on his friends list “shared” the image of the dog, arrow protruding from its side. The picture quickly went “viral,” meaning it was shared repeatedly, thousands of times, by animal rights activists, as well as others who simply thought the photo and its accompanying message to pit bull lovers – “Here’s what happens when one shows up around my house” – went a bit too far.

Indeed, a few readers expressed the opinion that the Press went a bit too far when we published the photo. A couple suggested we did it to “sell newspapers.” While we understand why some folks would rather not see such a heart-wrenching or even morbid image, we deemed it was a necessary element in helping us tell the story.

The report was first published on the Press website, without the photo, a day before it hit print in the Sunday edition. Some online readers who don’t have access to Facebook wanted to know why we hadn’t included the photo, because without it, they didn’t comprehend the furor that had erupted. After all, Cherokee County has long had a stray animal problem, and many area residents feel compelled to kill strays rather than see them suffer, or become a nuisance to livestock. Others who did have access to Facebook also wondered about the photo, but for different reasons. They were directly or peripherally involved with the Humane Society or Pet Pardons, the Facebook page from which the photo went viral. These observers suspected the Press and other area media were trying to “protect” Green by withholding visual proof of his deeds.

These assumptions are understandable, to a point. But there’s little doubt that in this case, the photo itself was the story. Had Green not posted the picture on Facebook, what he did to the dog would have never become public, and would never have made the news.

This powerful image, while distasteful to some readers, speaks far more concisely than written words ever could. We believe readers had a right – and some might argue, an obligation – to view the source of outrage, and many other media sources made the same judgment.

As far as the suspicion we were trying to sell more newspapers, it might surprise cynics to learn the opposite could just as well be true. Most people repelled by such an image aren’t going to buy the paper when they see it, or suddenly subscribe in hopes of seeing more like it.

We knew the photo would be controversial, but we also knew it was important. We draw the line on what images we publish, and we don’t make such decisions lightly. Our judgments are always made with the welfare, rights and needs of our readers in mind.

It’s anybody’s guess what direction this unfortunate story will take now. The Green family now says the dog was a stray and appeared to be sick. Many local residents believe them, and sympathize; they want law enforcement officials to give this young man another chance. Animal rights activists suspect the story has changed because of the unexpected blowback it created; they want Green prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and will never rest until they see that happen.

Paradoxically, many people have threatened the Green family, and continue to do so. We wonder why people who want the dog-killing investigated would force law enforcement officials to expend their limited manpower and resources investigating threats against Green.

The sheriff’s department and District Attorney’s Office find themselves in an unenviable position with this case, because of its high profile. We hope the public – both here and elsewhere – will give all those concerned a chance to do their jobs.