Why the i was wrong to change its front page

Late Wednesday evening, the i newspaper retracted its front page for the following day, which depicted the Westminster attack. Initially, the front page featured a photograph of the shoe of one of the victims in a puddle of blood. The design was quickly revised after it was shared, and sparked outrage, on social media. A new front page later emerged, featuring a picture of MP Tobias Ellwood trying to resuscitate PC Keith Palmer after he was fatally stabbed.

The bloody events that unfurled on Wednesday were awful. But the fact that Twitter pressure led to a newspaper changing its coverage is concerning. This is editing-by-committee. The original front page was harrowing, but it was also powerful. That tweeters have effectively decided what image is and isn’t acceptable to print in this instance raises worrying questions about the independence and self-confidence of the media.

Throughout history, horrific events have been portrayed in the media using horrific images. Think of the Napalm Girl in the New York Times in 1972; the cleaver-wielding Islamist who killed Lee Rigby, splashed across the front pages of the British press in 2013; and the image of Alan Kurdi, washed up on the Turkish shore, which went around the world in 2015. Newspapers have always looked to tell stories with shocking images.

Social-media outrage shouldn’t be allowed to dictate a newspaper’s editorial decisions. Editors should stick to their convictions. Explaining his decision to backtrack, the i’s editor, Oliver Duff, wrote: ‘I regret it: we never look to gratuitously shock or offend, and generally try to protect readers from horrors around the world.’ Surely the role of journalists is to the report the facts, to convey reality – not to protect their readers.

Many of the images from Wednesday’s attack are unpleasant to look at – and using them gratuitously would be unhelpful. (Gory images don’t make for good journalism in themselves.) But the fact that Twittermobs can pressure newspapers into changing tack is concerning. The decision to run such images lay with journalists. And the decision to look at them, or look away, lay with readers.

Izzy Lyons is a writer based in London.

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