Passing the `breakfast test'

April 01, 2007|By Gene Sweeney Jr. | Gene Sweeney Jr.,Sun Staff

Last Tuesday, while covering a high school baseball game in Winfield, I was called by the assignment editor at The Sun and told to head toward Frederick, where several bodies had been found in a house. Little information was available at the time except that some were children.

After 31 years in the news business, I have received several such calls. Many things run through your mind as you speed toward the event - foremost, how you will show the scene in a way that will pass what photojournalists of a certain age call the "breakfast test." This test means, Will readers, looking at the image in the paper while eating their breakfast, be offended?

When I arrived at the house in Frederick, you would have thought people were streaming to a block party, not a tragic family murder with four dead children in their beds and a father hanging in the hall. The scene was unusual: Police could not really keep neighbors at a distance because of the home's location on the street, and people were taking full advantage of this. Families were rushing to the area with children in arms and strollers. Teens and "tweens" were gathered 30 yards away from the door that would be used to remove the bodies, with their camera phones at the ready. Many were laughing, children were playing and adults were staring, all waiting to view the tragedy more intimately.

I kept wondering what the people were going to do with the cell-phone photos and videos they were taking, Show them at some social gathering? It would be unfair to call the mood of the crowd festive, but it certainly was not somber. I have to believe many knew the family, yet there seemed little outward concern. Then I noticed the police chief of Frederick, Kim Dine.

At a moment where he seemed to be facing the full impact of what had to have been horrific sights inside the house, Dine stood beside the van that would carry the bodies away and let out a large sigh with his head down. I took his photo, but I'm not sure how many noticed the tragedy that seemed written on his face. The crowd's attention was glued to the door where the bodies where to be removed. The police tried their best to cover the area with tarps, to shield the actual victim removal.

I left the scene before the bodies were removed from the house and transmitted the images I had shot to the paper from my car, parked a half-block away. A short time later, the bodies were carried out and, with the show over, the crowd left en masse.

Later, editors at The Sun agreed we did not need to show the bodies of the victims being removed. I had the photo that showed the effect of the scene on the police chief. The "breakfast test" was passed. The gravity of the event was conveyed powerfully to our readers without graphic details.

I still wonder what the parents who stood outside the home and took pictures said to their children, what will happen to the video and cell-phone images, and why a hardened police officer who did not know the four children and their father seemed to be the only person affected by what happened.

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