Controversial Photo Draws Support from Readers

By Noack, David | Editor & Publisher, June 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

Controversial Photo Draws Support from Readers


Noack, David, Editor & Publisher


When editors at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times decided to run a graphic and haunting photograph of a man dying of lung cancer on June 15, they braced themselves for the usual round of calls from readers upset with the picture.

Instead, when the calls and e-mails started coming in -- 200 in all -- they were positive and supportive of the paper for telling the story of 34-year-old Bryan Lee Curtis who, as his last wish, wanted people, especially children, to know and see the harmful and devastating effects of smoking.

While reporters and news organizations are often criticized for invading a person's privacy, in this case Curtis' mother Louise sought out the media, going to the local papers and TV stations and asking them to tell her son's story so it might help prevent someone else from starting to smoke.

Curtis started smoking when he was 13 years old. He eventually worked his way up to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Twenty-one years later, he lay emaciated and near death, some nine weeks after being told that he had lung cancer. The paper did a follow-up story June 22 on reader reaction to the original story of the week before. By the time the first story appeared, Curtis was already dead. He died shortly after a reporter and a photographer left his home June 3. His funeral was conducted June 8.

The powerful impact of the original coverage by medical reporter Sue Landry resulted from a combination of factors, say editors. It consisted of a relatively short article and two key photographs -- one of Curtis on his deathbed, which was taken by V. Jane Windsor, a staff photographer, and the other of Curtis and his son nine weeks earlier, which was provided by his family.

Landry says she was first approached to do the story by Curtis' mother, who had called her from the lobby of the newspaper. They talked, and when Landry

saw some photographs, she knew there was a story.

"[Curtis' mother] explained to me about why he wanted to get his story out. He wanted to let kids see him because he thought it would convince them not to smoke," says Landry.

When Landry and Windsor arrived at the house, Curtis could no longer speak, and he did not even know they were there. "We were there about 45 minutes to an hour. The family was very open about having us there. I kind of stayed in the background. …

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Controversial Photo Draws Support from Readers
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