Digital graffiti

Los Angeles has been tagged. The city is covered in graffiti: on vacant buildings, on street signs, on walls along the freeways, on park benches at bus stops — even on tree trunks.

Because graffiti is so much a part of L.A. life, it’s only natural that it comes up frequently in the news. In the past week, editors at the L.A. Times have had to deal with front-page stories that bear the mark of the graffiti artist.

In the first instance, graffiti was not the focus of a story; it was about red-light cameras. Yet the photo with the story included a graffiti-stained sign, prompting complaints from readers: Why would the LAT publish such an image? Wouldn’t doing so encourage others to commit the same crime? Could graffiti be scrubbed from such photos?

Jamie Gold, the paper’s reader representative, responded to their concerns. First, she made it clear that the newspaper cannot alter photographs by wiping them clean of graffiti. Second, graffiti is an inevitable feature of the street in Los Angeles. To reflect its existence is not to endorse it. Graffiti is difficult to avoid, and doing so in every photo assignment would be to deny reality.

In the second instance, the story was all about graffiti, particularly the practice of tagging. The story was about a man accused of being a “tagger” who was posting videos of himself leaving his mark on overpasses and and city buses. He did his work in broad daylight. The print story itself was a straight-ahead crime piece. Online, the L.A. Times site added a link to one of the videos of the tagger in action.

That’s where the AM copy desk, which edits stories for the Web site and posts for L.A. Times blogs, raised a question. The tagging video opened with a title slide that included profanity. Should the site warn readers that this video may not be safe work? Discussion led to the decision to put a warning about the strong language. The video itself would still be linked, and all agreed that it was an integral part of the story.

Graffiti is a fact of life in L.A. It isn’t going to disappear from the city’s streets — or from the coverage in its biggest newspaper.