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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Shadid Curriculum: Two Troubled People

Headshot of Christy Gutowski
Christy Gutowski, Chicago Tribune reporter and 2020 Shadid Award finalist.

“Two troubled people met at a McHenry County courthouse in 2012. Today, they stand charged in the murder of their 5-year-old son.”

Christy Gutowski, The Chicago Tribune

Publishing Sensitive Photos

Christy Gutowski of The Chicago Tribune chronicled how Illinois state child-welfare officials repeatedly failed to protect a 5-year-old boy who was eventually murdered by his parents.

A Chicago Tribune review of the case revealed state child-welfare officials repeatedly failed to properly assess the dangers AJ Freund faced in his home, and the beleaguered Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was forced to answer difficult questions about whether it missed opportunities to protect the boy. 

For four months, Gutowski struggled to obtain legal documents related to the incidents, and eventually received copies of images used in the case. These photos showed AJ with a severe hip bruise and other signs of abuse. The imagery was disturbing, leading Gutowski to consult with trusted child welfare sources, including a board-certified child-abuse pediatrician and an advocate who grew up in foster care to better understand the implications of publishing the photos. Gutowski eventually decided to publish the photos alongside the story.


Q1: Was it unprofessional to show AJ in this vulnerable state? What is the difference between sensationalism and impact?

Q2: Does the use of explicit imagery help the gravity of the story, or detract from the broader problems being uncovered?

Q3:  Can you think of scenarios where explicit imagery is clearly misused? Can you think of stories where graphic depictions would be necessary to get the story across?