What’s Newsworthy?

The visual coverage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt has fascinated me for years. Stricken with polio, he was mostly unable to walk without either physical or mechanical assistance, yet the journalists of the time almost never recorded that fact.

It’s perhaps one of the greatest ethical discussions on how we cover those in power – what matters, what doesn’t and what’s the effect of that coverage.

Polio, as a physical ailment, had no impact on his intellectual abilities and, therefore, no impact on his ability to do the work required of being president. But how would the general public have responded? Would they have been able to understand that the damage to his legs had no impact on his ability to lead?

The decision not to film or photograph was, I think, an ethical choice. Journalists collect massive amounts of information, assess it, analyze it, vet it, contextualize it and then publish it. Part of that assessment is understanding what the reaction to it will be, that understanding of your audience is a critical part of the process.

This comes up as nearly 90 minutes of unseen silent films of President Roosevelt are about to be released. Michael Ruane of the Washington Post touches on the issue in the video there, worth a watch.