100 articles – ‘To our readers: Jul. 4 1994’

6 October 2011

Written by: Lawrie Zion

‘To our readers: Jul. 4, 1994’ by James R. Gaines

The words ‘public apology’ are enough to make every editor shudder. For former TIME Magazine managing editor, James R. Gaines, the cringe-worthy thought became a harsh reality.

On June 17 1994,  former NFL star O. J. Simpson was arrested as a suspect for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Two weeks later, TIME found themselves alongside Simpson in a ‘storm of controversy’. Its June 27th 1994 issue had a mug shot of Simpson titled ‘An American Tragedy’ on the cover. Questions of journalistic ethics emerged as readers realised the image of Simpson had been darkened by photographer Matt Mahurin in contrast to the version used by Newsweek on its cover.

Gaines was forced to apologise on behalf of TIME. He argued that it was not the magazine’s intention to spark the racial debate ignited by the cover, nor to imply that Simpson was guilty. His reaction demonstrates the responsibility and scrutiny editors face.

‘The harshness of the mug shot – the merciless bright light, the stubble on Simpson’s face…this cover, with the simple, nonjudgmental headline “An American Tragedy,” seemed the obvious, right choice,’ he wrote.

Yet every journalist knows Gaines’ decision to run with an image that was deliberately altered was unethical. Let his public shame be a constant warning to editors and journalists alike.

Liana Neri is a final-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University and is part of upstart’s editorial team. You can follow her on Twitter: @liana_neri

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