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THE OMBUDSMAN

A series of errors on lewd images

IT IS AN understatement to say that the Globe erred when it ran a photo that, if you look closely, showed images of men dressed as soldiers having sex with unidentified women. It's also an understatement to say the paper regrets the error -- as was evident in the apology published yesterday as an editor's note. There's no excuse for what happened -- but, for the many readers who asked how the Globe could publish a photo that included sexually explicit and unauthenticated images, there is this explanation:

First, the context. On Tuesday Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner held a press conference to display photos he said showed Iraqi women being raped by US soldiers. Some news outlets didn't report on the press conference because the photos were unverified -- and there was reason to doubt them -- but the Globe Metro staff decided it was better to write the story, raise questions within it, and let voters judge Turner's actions.

Tuesday afternoon a photo staffer reviewed photos taken at the press conference. They showed Turner next to a display of four sexually explicit photos that he said were from Iraq. Picture editor Thea Breite -- failing, she says, to realize that the sexual images were recognizable -- asked the photography director, Catie Aldrich, if she had a problem with the photo running. Aldrich, who was on deadline and says she had no idea that Breite was asking about the photo's appropriateness, gave a routine OK.

At that point the question of taste, says Aldrich, should have been raised more explicitly. Says Breite, "I would have . . . if I had thought you could see something [inappropriate] in the photo."

That constituted Mistake No. 1, a misperception and a miscommunication, perhaps attributable to simple human error. But Mistake No. 2 is more troubling.

The photo, headed for the publication pipeline, should have been flagged for discussion by top editors, as all sensitive or graphic photos should be. Although several staffers saw it, no one set that process in motion; one raised a question but the message was not received in time. "There should have been a lot of checks and balances and, for whatever reason, there weren't," said Aldrich, who as photo chief takes ultimate responsibility for what she calls the "huge embarrassment."

"There was a lapse in judgments and procedures, and we apologize for it," said Globe Editor Martin Baron. The graphic nature of the photos and their lack of authentication made them unsuitable for publication, he said.

First edition carried the Page B2 photo three columns wide -- big enough to make out the roughly 1-inch square sexual images within it. In later editions it was made smaller at the request of Michael Larkin, a deputy managing editor, who said that although he could not discern the sexual images on the page proof he viewed, he wanted to play it safe, given the story's content.

On Wednesday many editors were shocked to see the photo in print. So were readers, who called in large number, many saying they were "disgusted" and "angry."

The photo quickly became the subject of talk shows and websites. It was held up as evidence of the Globe's "anti-Americanism," its desire to "bring down Bush" or discredit US troops. I think that criticism is off the mark. Yet the error could not have come at a worse time. Emotions about Iraq were running high even before the beheading of Nicholas Berg. That the Berg story shared the May 12 paper with the inappropriate photo only made things worse. Some readers called for the firing of various Globe editors. "We are not firing anybody," responds Baron. What will happen, he says, is conversations with staffers about following proper procedure.

One of the additionally unfortunate elements of the photo was that it made the accompanying story on Turner seem less skeptical. "Our intent . . . was to bring some scrutiny to allegations" by Turner "specifically his claims that he had evidence of extensive abuse committed by US soldiers," says Metro Editor Carolyn Ryan. Instead, the photo seemed to give weight to his case.

Various sources last week said the photos displayed by Turner came from a pornography website, and they may well have, although I could not trace it to the source. I did find one news website with a note from a woman identified as the porn site operator. She was quoted as saying the images, shot in Hungary, had been removed because they were used for anti-American purposes.

Publication of the photo in the Globe did not reflect the paper's editorial intent. But it did reflect the failure of its system to keep inappropriate material out of the paper. Baron was right to apologize.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. E-mail: ombud@globe.com. 

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