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Case Study

The Execution of Ruth Snyder: A Case Study in Media Ethics

The classroom-ready case study highlights the issues of hidden cameras and sensationalism, and helps students understand that these have been topics of discussion among journalists for some time.

Snyder execution

Tom Howard’s famous sneak shot of Snyder’s execution. (New York Daily News)

Sensational journalism has not appeared with the advent of social media and the rapid spread of digital information. It was especially important in 1928, when the New York Daily News was involved in a circulation war and used sensational journalism to sell more papers by getting an image no other journalist would: a photograph of the moment of death in an execution.

The Daily News recruited a photographer from a different newspaper to sit unrecognized at Ruth Snyder’s execution for murdering her husband. The newspaper’s publication of the photograph drew sharp backlash and brought the debate on media photograph ethics into a new light.

Below is a classroom-ready lesson on ethical issues raised in the coverage of Snyder’s execution. The case-study approach, used by NewseumED in our classes offered on-site and virtually, asks students to debate what courses of action they would take if they were the journalist assigned to the story. We also provide questions to help guide the discussion, as well as background information for the moderator.

The Case

The year is 1928. You’re assigned to cover the execution of a convicted murderer. Your newspaper is fighting a “circulation war.” This is your chance to scoop the competition. The execution is set for tonight.

If you were the journalist, how would you cover the story?

A.  Get an artist to sketch the electric chair execution.

B.  Sneak a hidden camera in and photograph the moment of death.

C.  Get there early and interview the family of the victim.

Questions to Discuss

  • What are the pros and cons of publishing an image of an execution?
  • What are the ethical issues journalists should consider in this case?
  • Should the privacy of the prisoner and her family be taken into consideration?
  • The prison banned photographers from the execution. Does that affect your decision?
  • Are executions newsworthy? Why or why not?
  • What’s the value, if any, of having an image run with the story? Artist’s sketch versus photograph?
  • What are the pros and cons of sensational news stories?
  • How much weight should each of the following carry in your decision: journalism ethics, a newspaper’s need to make money, the public’s appetite for sensational news, and the public’s right to know? Explain.
  • Should hidden cameras ever be used in reporting a story? Why or why?
  • What are possible consequences of your decision — good and bad?
  • How are current-day executions generally covered by the news media?
  • What do you think the reaction would be today if someone photographed an execution and shared it on social media?

Tips for student discussion: In small groups, students should talk through the questions and decide what action they would take. They should be able to clearly provide their rationale. Encourage them to offer other options.

Background

On Jan. 12, 1928, Ruth Snyder, a 32-year-old New Yorker convicted of murdering her husband, was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison.

The prison barred photographers. Tom Howard, then a photographer for the Chicago Tribune, was “imported” by the New York Daily News so he could sit, unrecognized, with newspaper reporters at the execution.

Howard had a miniature camera strapped to his ankle, and a wire with a trigger release up his pant leg. He photographed the electrocution, pulling off one of the most famous sneak shots in journalism. The Daily News splashed the black-and-white picture across the front page with the screaming headline, “DEAD!” The paper sold a half million extra copies. Howard reportedly received a $100 bonus for the image.

This sensational coverage was widely condemned, but not among Daily News readers; only a handful wrote to complain.

This incident prompted prison officials to tighten surveillance of all who witness executions. No states currently allow the use of photographic or recording equipment at executions, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.  But that hasn’t kept some photojournalists from seeking permission. They argue that the public has a right to witness the death penalty in operation.

Classroom-ready PowerPoint presentation

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Tips on designing your own case studies

Snyder in the Newseum

Check out the Ruth Snyder case study at the Newseum’s interactive Ethics Center on level 2. Compare your response to the case with what visitors to the Newseum and journalists say they would do. The exhibit also features a brief video in which Maurine Beasley, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, gives her perspective of the case. The News History Gallery on level 5 also has Tom Howard’s camera, along with the front page containing his photograph.

For further discussion: Consider a more recent related example: In 1998, “60 Minutes,” a CBS program, aired a videotape of Dr. Jack Kevorkian administering a lethal injection to a terminally ill man. Should CBS have included the video in its broadcast? How do you explain the fact that “60 Minutes” attracted its biggest audience of the season, even though many CBS affiliates did not air it? (Kevorkian, a public advocate of assisted suicide for the terminally ill, subsequently was tried and convicted of second-degree murder in the man’ s death.)

 

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