Readers react to photo of female sailors’ homecoming kiss

Virginian-Pilot reporter Corinne Reilly tells me that reaction to her story about two female sailors’ homecoming kiss and Brian Clark’s photo that ran with it (on the right, below the fold) “has run the gamut, but the vast majority of messages I’ve received have definitely come from readers who found the story and photo offensive.”

She wrote on Thursday:

Here are a couple of examples, which were in my email this morning:

“That photo is illustrious of why people instinctive know this country is rotting from the inside out. Whats next a close up shot of bestiality! Jim, Southern CA”

“Please spare me the deviant behavior. How much did the Human Rights Campaign pay you to do this ‘story’???”

The voicemails that were waiting for me this morning were decidedly nastier. I’ve also gotten a few notes from appreciative readers, though, such as this one:

“Thank you and your editors so much for the story of the 2 Navy women sharing the kiss. What a refreshing change to open to this story. At last, some progress on an agenda that should not be an agenda at all.”

The reporter adds:

We’re in a Navy town and we cover ship homecomings all the time. We usually try to find new angles or zero in on individual sailors. In my mind, this story was no different, and I tried to write it as such, although I certainly expected that it would elicit far more reaction than most homecoming stories.

Virginian-Pilot managing editor Maria Carrillo tells Charles Apple that “we’ve had some folks accuse us of losing our moral compass and there’s been stronger language than that …Honestly, I expected more vitriol.”

The Seattle Times ran the photo more prominently on page one than the Virginian-Pilot. Times managing editor Kathy Best tells me:

We got 12 calls and emails from print subscribers, a couple of whom threatened to cancel their subscriptions. The majority said they were not upset that we used the picture, but felt it was wrong to put it on the front page because it was offensive.

Online, the photo and story generated more than 200 comments, ranging from a congratulatory “Go, Navy!” to extreme disappointment. This comment was typical of the latter group: “I guess I’m getting too old. My respect for those in the military just went down a notch. My God we fell so far so fast. No honor left, just social engineering. How utterly depressing.”

Here’s the note that the Seattle Times sent to readers who threatened to cancel:

Dear XXX

I’m sorry that you found the photo on today’s front page offensive. That was not our intention. We selected the photo because it depicted an historic moment for the U.S. military, vividly illustrating the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era in a striking twist on the Navy’s “first kiss” tradition.

As you know, treatment of gay and lesbian members of the U.S. military has been hotly debated for years, including at military installations around the Puget Sound region. As politicians and military leaders argued, the effect on individual soldiers and sailors sometimes got lost. This photo, which both our picture and news editors described as iconic, showed what the policy change meant at street level.

Part of our responsibility as a news organization is to reflect the reality around us, even if it might make some readers uncomfortable. We do not make those decisions lightly. We debated how and where to use this picture extensively. In the end, we felt the historic nature of the photo merited front page treatment.

While you may not agree with this decision, I hope this explanation helps you understand it. We were not trying to push a political agenda. We were trying to show the real-world effect of a political change of policy.

I hope you will reconsider your decision to cancel the paper. Just as we value lively debates in our newsroom about how to display news, we value lively debates with our readers about whether they think we’re doing a good job. We need readers like you who care enough to call us to account when you don’t think we’re doing our jobs well. It keeps us on our toes and helps inform the choices we make going forward.

Sincerely,
Kathy Best
Managing Editor, The Seattle Times

Comments

comments

24 comments
  1. p downs said:

    Without getting into “Don’t ask, don’t tell” here, you have to take some of this negative response with a grain of salt, I think (i.e., you can make some of the people happy some of the time). You’ll get readers who think that showing a violent traffic accident with dead people on P.1 is tasteless or offensive, for example. I might have put this on P.2, were I the ME. That said, there are people out there (male and female, straight and gay), given what we know about America’s widespread addiction to porn, who would look at a similar scene for titillation if the women had a lot less clothing on and were more “vigorous”, but they might not admit to it. So, maybe some people “doth protest too much?”

  2. “Bestiality”? Wow. Just… wow. The DEPTH of this hate is just shocking.

  3. Baylink said:

    Of *course* the response was mostly negative; the people who are closed-minded enough to have a negative opinion on this are *much* more prone to recreational indignation than those who think it’s a positive comment on American society, most of whom either just said “all right!” to the empty room around them, or shared the story on Facebook with their approbation attached.

  4. I’m curious to know how the reaction compared to that for the lead story on the arrests of eight soldiers in connection with the suicide of Pvt. Danny Chen, allegations of behavior that should be far more troubling than a couple of people kissing ….

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  5. Albert911emt said:

    Oh yeah, two people kissing each other….how terrible. Won’t somebody please think about the feelings of total strangers before they go showing a bit of affection in public? Next thing you know, they’ll be holding hands and smiling at each other…when will the horror end?

  6. I wonder how everybody would have played the photo and how the reaction would have changed, if both sailors had been male.

    (My guess: less prominently and more polarized)

  7. No mention of the photojournalist who made the picture? C’mon, Jim, the reporter didn’t make that picture. At least talk with the photojournalist who made the image that started the discussion in the first place.

  8. Dave Barnes said:

    This photo was on the front page of the Denver Post. Prominently. And, posted online over 30 hours ago.
    So, this morning, I went to the Post online to what the comments were.
    Zero. Nada. Zilch.
    Not a single comment.

    On the other hand, “Obama to travel to Hawaii for delayed vacation” which was posted online only, 1.5 hours ago has 12 comments.

  9. Jim said:

    Eric — Yes I should have given Brian Clark credit. I’ve added his name and sent him some questions.

  10. JakeH said:

    I’m not surprised that most of the commentary she recieved was negative. Those driven by fear or hatred will always pen letters, give money, leave comments, and go to the polls in higher percentages than those who are supportive or indifferent. It’s a very, very, loud minority of fundamentalists that are still stealing much of the discourse on stuff like this …

    The only thing I find offensive about this article in any way is that a servicemember kissing their loved one upon return to the states is seen as offensive by some people.

  11. JoshT said:

    @JakeH RE: “Its a very, very loud minority of fundamentalists that are still stealing much of the discourse on stuff like this…”

    It’s also a very, very loud minority of people on the other side of the spectrum that can’t understand why homosexuality makes some people uncomfortable.

    I agree with you that it’s not surprising that most of the commentary is negative, just as it is a little surprising at how visceral the reaction is to people who are still a bit uncomfortable with homosexuality.

    I tend to think that the majority of Americans fall somewhere in the “I’m-not-totally-comfortable-with-homosexuality-but-I’m-not-against-gay-people” camp. This photo is an historic moment and should receive prominence in the papers, but I think it’s also okay for some people to not totally get it, yet.

  12. Mel Morse said:

    This is simply a good example of Hedtke’s Law: “Something that doesn’t offend somebody couldn’t possibly interest anybody.” (http://hedtke.blogspot.com/2009/09/hedtkes-laws.html)

    Somebody was offended. Good. The Seattle Times is doing its job.

  13. Hope said:

    If Jim, the homosexuality=beastiality commenter, does not understand the difference between two people kissing and fornicating with an animal, perhaps he should hie himself to either a dictionary or a therapist.

  14. Mike said:

    “Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

  15. Anon said:

    Part of the PAO training for the end of DADT was how to deal with this situation, especially the first time it happened.

    Looks like the PA folks handled it perfectly.

  16. “Somebody was offended. Good. The Seattle Times is doing its job.”

    And it’s precisely that kind of reasoning that explains why many readers question the motives of the newspapers that published this photo on the front page.

    It’s definitely a historic photo that should have been published. Perhaps not on the front page, but too many newsrooms no longer have people capable of analysis on that level. To today’s yes or no “thinkers,” it’s front or nothing.

    None of that changes the fact the readers have reason to question the decision-making process here.

    Finally, in reference to the Facebook string of comments, it’s fitting that someone, in a poorly concealed and poorly conceived bid to cheer on the designers, referred to the wrong newspaper. Some things don’t change and never will.

  17. This photo was also front paged in the three Chinese-language dailies in Taiwan, where I live. In fact, that photo which went on the wires, was published in over 300 newspapers in non-English speaking and non-Christians countries. COOL!

  18. Andrew Forrest said:

    I don’t usually give my full name when posting on websites, but is is important enough: It’s great pity that so many people have been so negative. I’m male and straight (thought not American) and think it’s great that Hesse particular barriers are being smashed.

    Quite frankly if these people decide to quit their subscription, you can do without them. The world is changing— for the better, and they can change, or be left behind.

  19. Carola said:

    Happy to say the Eugene Register Guard also printed this. It put a big grin on my face–maybe America is getting it at last. On the other hand, I do think pic of a violent traffic accident is offensive. And I’m sorry to have to agree with the comment about the army private who committed suicide. That’s just boys will be boys???

  20. jon said:

    the paper isn’t necessarily promoting a particular point of view unless it gave this story more prominence than it has other “first kiss” stories in the past. Has the paper highlighted this tradition in the past? has it included photos of the “first kiss” in the past? has it put these photos on the front page.

    the paper may be promoting the “gay agenda’ or it may not be.

  21. Caliban said:

    No matter how you feel about it, the photo IS newsworthy, a visual symbol of a historic change which was/is hotly debated. Whatever “offense” you feel from seeing it is something YOU bring to it, not from anything intrinsically offensive about the photo itself. Both women are demurely dressed (1 even in uniform), there’s nothing particularly sexual about it, and women frequently kiss in greeting in our culture. It’s only because you know they’re a couple that you think it’s “offensive” and that’s in the eye of the beholder, a matter of opinion.

  22. jimmy said:

    I bet the majority of negative feedback from people who have never served themselves

  23. “people who have never served themselves” — An amazingly weak argument.

  24. Dev said:

    Nothing surprising about the negative reactions, especially to those who remember the outrage when blacks were being systematically incorporated into society as equals. And don’t get me started about equality for women. Some people will always be against someone else, if for no other reason than that they need something to hate. Just ignore them and move on, the world is going forward inexorably and those who refuse to give up their hate will be left behind, bitter and angry as ever. We’ve seen this all before, we’ll see it again and again as long as there are people.