Wisconsin editor shaken by hand gestures photo controversy

When Sheboygan Falls (Wis.) News editor Jeff Pederson ran a sports photo of brothers Jordan, Juwaun and Jamal Jackson flashing hand signs, he never anticipated controversy.

“It has become quite common in recent years for high school sports teams to do fun
poses in team and championship celebration photos,” Pederson writes in an email. “I believe many of these photos are wonderful depictions of the joy and enthusiasm of
high school athletes competing for the love of their chosen sport. Some of these photos contain goofy poses with hand gestures and signs.”

After the photo was published, two of the boys were told they’d be benched for Friday’s game because school administrators and Sheboygan Falls police believed the Jacksons were flashing gang symbols.

Wrong, say the brothers.

“I just did the 3-point sign that every player does in the NBA,” Jordan Jackson told the Sheboygan Press. “I just felt that I was being treated unfair.”

During a phone interview on Sunday, Pederson seemed shocked that his 2,000-circulation weekly was responsible for a national controversy.

“This was a positive story about brothers moving to a new school district and contributing to a basketball program.”

Why didn’t he ask the boys about their hand gestures before running the photo, then explain them to readers? The 44-year-old editor didn’t think he had to.

“I guess it is people’s nature to assume that if people, especially young people, look like they are having fun or expressing themselves in a somewhat different way, they must to up to something bad,” he says. “I suppose a horrible event like this will change things quite a bit, at least for our paper, which I believe is very sad.”

He continues in an email:

What has happened with what I still believe is a perfectly fine photo that fit well with the story is disgusting and will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am struggling to understand this entire situation, but I do know that I can’t allow the people we photograph to be put up to this very serious level of scrutiny ever again.

I firmly believe that a fun photo with personality catches the eye and can even bring a smile to someones face even if they don’t know the people in the photo. That is the kind of photo I have always tried to search for, but obviously things will change with this very ugly event, which should have never been an issue, let alone a national controversy and even a joke to some. Honestly, that is unacceptable and it will force me to change my approach to make sure that NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN!

He added in a Facebook post:

I have apologized to the Jackson family for the negativity that has resulted from my decision [to use the photo]. I never thought anything like this would ever happen. In my 20 years in mainly small-town newspaper journalism, I have fielded plenty of complaints from readers. However, I have never seen anything published in a paper I have been a part of escalate to this very unfortunate and negative magnitude.

The brothers’ suspension was lifted late in the week and they played in Friday’s game. (Sheboygan Falls lost to its conference rival).

“It’s been a long, stressful week,” Jordan Jackson told the Sheboygan Press. “Dealing with a lot of stuff, always getting contacts from reporters, news broadcasts, people in school. Just all the attention, it’s just all overwhelming being only 17, but I feel like I handled it very maturely.”

* Photo prompts suspension over alleged gang signs (sheboyganpress.com)
* Suspensions overturned (with PDF of police investigation of the matter) (whbl.com)
* Perception vs. reality: The editor’s explanation (facebook.com)