One night last week, as I was doing my ritualistic scrolling of Twitter before going to bed, a tweet from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Twitter account caught my eye.
It wasn’t because it was an especially captivating photo; rather, it was what their social media team probably hoped no one would notice.
The photo, which had a thank-you message imposed on it, showed everyone properly wearing their masks in the stands. But as I looked through the comments of the tweet, I noticed the original, uncropped photo had an important difference.
Apparently, someone in the public relations department had decided to Photoshop masks onto the handful of non-compliant people in the stands before tweeting it out, to give the impression that Penguins fans were taking the pandemic seriously.
It didn’t sit well with me.
Maybe I was just cranky, having had a nasal swab shoved up each nostril earlier that day after my significant other had been exposed to a family member who, unbeknownst to us, hadn’t been feeling well. We only found out from another family member who tested positive earlier afterward.
Having to go through that for the third time in a year, it felt like a breach of trust. Had we known someone in the family wasn’t feeling well, we’d have made a different decision to keep ourselves safe.
The same goes for mask-wearing. If I were considering attending a Penguins game and saw that photo in only its Photoshopped form, it would give me a false sense of safety.
The original shot, with several masks either not on or hanging out below noses, would make me think differently.
As a newspaper editor, I’m going to take this principle a step further and say honesty is more essential now than ever. It’s far more important than modeling whatever you believe is appropriate behavior.
In the last few weeks, we’ve gotten several complaints about people in our photos not wearing their masks properly. Some suggested or even said directly that it is our responsibility as a newspaper to promote proper mask etiquette.
Even before my latest rendezvous at the Alliant Energy Center’s COVID-19 testing site, I’d have argued no. I’m even more convinced now.
I’ll unashamedly say I’m pro-mask wearing. I’m a big believer in reducing human suffering and harm through slowing the spread of the virus by covering my face, mask acne and all.
Masks aren’t a perfect way to deal with the pandemic, but if we’d have had that perfect solution last summer, mask mandates wouldn’t have been needed to begin with.
It’s irresponsible to believe that everyone has that same mentality in the communities we live in. Most of us can name at least one person in our lives that we love who won’t wear a mask, no matter how much their loved ones plead with them.
Hiding this reality by choosing to publish only photos that show correctly worn masks doesn’t make life safer. It probably does the opposite.
Choosing a certain reality by showing only what we or others believe is appropriate is propaganda, not truth, and our business is truth – even if it makes people look bad.
That decision might make you feel good while you look at the story on the page, but it wouldn’t do you any good when you walk into a place where we previously published photos of full mask compliance, and end up getting a surprise.
So, as we ride out the rest of this pandemic, however long it lasts, don’t expect us to lie to you by not running photos of non-mask-compliant people. Because right now, as I anxiously await my COVID-19 test results, the resounding feeling I have is that the false sense of safety at a recent family gathering led us to a poor decision.
It’s not a feeling I like – and it’s not a feeling I want to impart on our readers.