Newspaper challenged over "deceptive" photo of high school player taunting crowd

Photo: Ron Johnson / Journal Star

The Peoria Journal Star published this photo, by Ron Johnson, to give the impression that player Jalen Brunson was raising a middle finger to the opposing team's fans. An accompanying story, by Kirk Wessler, "Bits of Madness: Excellence soured by poor sportsmanship", was all about that finger, excoriating the young man for his "vulgarity."

In the dying seconds, an emotional and frustrated Brunson turned to the Whitney Young fans and raised his middle fingers at them. ... you can’t do this. Even if the refs missed it and, therefore, didn’t whistle him for a technical foul, this is unacceptable.What Brunson did in the heat of the moment doesn’t diminish his talent, and it doesn’t make his performance any less remarkable. But he diminished himself, and he served up on a silver platter a reason for thousands of people to go away thinking the worst of him as a person. It was, unfortunately, a classless exclamation point and made the night unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.

But it was grossly out of context, a deception exposed by a Chicago Tribune photographer who happened to be at the same game. At 10 frames per second, the finger shows only for a couple of frames, as Brunson throws his arms down after an interruption in play. The Tribune's shooter, Scott Strazzante, even paused to note the fleeting nature of the gesture, reminding himself not to file photographs of it.

Seeing the play happen through my viewfinder, I was very confident that the gesture was not intentional. I felt [my own photos] could be misconstrued, so, I decided that it would be reckless of me to transmit the photo and take a chance that someone who didn't see the play unfold would think that Jalen Brunson was flipping off the crowd or officials. ... Sometimes, I feel that we photographers forget how much power that we wield, not only with our images, but, also, with the words that we write to accompany our photography. ... it wasn't the photo that lied, after all, but the words that went with it."

Brunson, for his part, also insisted that it was misconstrued: "I apologize for the image that was captured in last night's game but I do not apologize for the action because I didn't do what was portrayed."

Poynter online points out that the player was suspended briefly because of the photo, and found video that suggests a vanishingly brief, if questionable gesture that was grossly misrepresented by the original freeze-frame: "Whatever you believe, the young man did not stand in center court and taunt the opposing crowd."

Brunson had to endure being smarmily interviewed by Wessler during the aftermath, as the latter and his colleagues set out to cover their hack asses.

"The single frame is damning," Wessler insists. "In super slow motion, the video looks bad, too. ... But neither still photos nor video can get inside a young man’s head."