PERRY: Picture this — photos depicting dead children are critical and inapt

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I don’t have to pause for a moment to know the worst part of journalism is the death of children.

Beyond grim, imposing our cameras, our questions and our deadlines into the tragedy of a dead child is viscerally traumatic.

You never forget the stories of children felled by cars, murdered by parents or struck down by cancer. They leave tender scars. That all-too familiar painful knot in the throat struck Tuesday as Aurora Sentinel photographer Gabriel Christus began filing photos of the body of 6-year-old David Puckett being retrieved from the frozen pond in Aurora’s Olympic Park. Puckett went missing New Year’s Eve and was the subject of a massive search. That search ended in the worst way Tuesday morning.

Like any parent, the pain I feel for the little boy is halting. My sympathy for the terror suffered by the boy’s parents is crushing.

And once again, we began the unnerving process of deciding which photos and details to include in the story.

The shots depicted yellow-clad divers on the frozen lake, working to get into and out of the water. One photo showed the rescuers carrying the body of a boy inside a body bag. A small foot was clearly visible. The image made me draw a breath. It brought back waves of revulsion connected to the Chuck E. Cheese’s murder decades ago. It brought back the same feeling as did the story about two Aurora toddlers who died in a house fire while their mom was out partying. Columbine High School. Children killed in car wrecks. Children shot by other children. A baby boy killed when he was flung against a wall by his father.

“Not that one,” I said to another editor as we went through the photos. I felt that uncomfortable flush that I know can become overwhelming and come without warning. When it comes, you have to stop what you’re doing and leave.

Another photo told the story of the end of Puckett’s brief life. The rescuers were carrying a black body bag across the frozen pond. Two rescuers were still in the water, where ice had been cut open so they could descend to a place I can’t imagine ever having to go. Police and rescuers around the perimeter watched the gruesome task.

“That one.”

I knew the phone would soon ring with complaints about how insensitive it was to run such a ghastly picture. And it did.

So I want to tell you that we are far from insensitive to such things, just like journalists across town, and across the globe. I’ve seen far more sickening photos and been forced to stoically ask more revolting questions to get revolting answers than I can let myself recall. And each time I decide which photo to publish or which detail to include, I put myself in the place of the victim’s family and friends. And then I put myself in the place of our readers.

Our job is convey to you in the most cogent way, the good and the bad in our world. It’s one thing to tell someone about how horrible it was that a little boy apparently wandered onto dangerous pond ice, and to show you a picture of how that ended. It’s one thing to describe to you what it’s like to watch a park full of cops and rescuers, most of whom have children of their own, stare as a young boy is pulled from his icy death — and instead let you see for yourself as they follow the body bag being carried to shore.

You need to see the scene to truly understand the story. And everyone on the planet needed to see the shocking photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body lying dead on a Turkish beach in 2015. The Syrian toddler had drowned as his family tried to flee the terror of their war-torn country. You’ve seen the photo, and having only heard about it would not bring justice to the story of the boy’s death and the horror in Syria.

Here, and at newspapers across the globe, we make the unwanted and unconvincing decisions about which parts of tragedy to share with the public. These decisions have been fodder for criticism and introspection since the beginning of newspapers.

There is only one thing I’m certain of, that there are no right answers. Balancing the feelings of those dragged into the horror of losing a child with the very real need to tell the community what they want and need to know is an imperfect philosophy.

Am I sure we did the right thing in prominently running that provocative and telling photo? No. Would I make the same decision now? Yes.

And when my tour of newsroom duty finally comes to an end, I will be glad and relieved that I never have to hear such tragedies nor make such revolting decisions again. And I hope those who do it after me feel exactly the same way and make sure they tell us what we need to know.

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]