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Over the weekend we received reprimands from a few of our readers.

The rebukes came in the form of emails and online comments that called us thoughtless and irresponsible, and accused us of endangering lives.

They were in reference to a brief story we ran on Friday about Sandwich’s farmers market continuing through the winter months. That’s not exactly the kind of story that we expect to generate blowback. It didn’t include any of the key terms that tend to engender controversy. Terms like “presidential election” or “voter fraud,” for instance.

But years of newspaper experience have shown us that it tends to be the seemingly innocuous things that land you in the hottest water with readers.

The readers did not take issue with the farmers market story itself, exactly, but the photograph that accompanied it. The photograph was not a recent photo. It was from our files. It showed a vendor at the market smiling as he discussed his wares with a customer. The customer, dressed in a sun dress and sunglasses, is also smiling.

Notice anything wrong with this picture?

If not, here’s a hint: it has to do with the smiles. Or rather, the fact that you can see them.

No masks!

This photo was from two years ago and was only added to the story to provide a bit more visual interest to the layout.

It was also added late in the game, as deadline approached. The editor searched out the photo and attached it to the story. The designer laid out the page. At least one copy editor proofed the page before it was sent off to the printer. Not one of them saw a problem with the image.

Additionally, the story was featured in Saturday morning’s good news UpSide e-newsletter. That means the photo did not raise a red flag to the staff member who assembled that newsletter, either.

But some readers spotted it and were not pleased.

“This is NOT the time to promote no masks. This is a dangerous moment in the life of this pandemic, the infection is spiking. Now is the time to promote everybody wearing masks. You have a responsibility to send out the correct message. This picture doesn’t do that,” one reader wrote.

“Don’t you get it?” another reader asked. “With your thoughtless choice of that photo, you are subliminally encouraging all of your readers to go maskless.”

“Doesn’t anyone think any more?” another added.

They are right. It was an unintentionally thoughtless choice on our part.

In this instance, the photo had no news value. It was just a design element. That’s all.

COVID-19 is serious business. Everyone needs to be wearing a mask when they are out in public.

We have a responsibility to the thousands of people who read our newspapers every week and many more who read our stories online. We need to keep COVID in mind when we’re deciding what photographs to run.

Even through we yearn to fill our pages with the happy, smiling faces of our neighbors, we need to be more thoughtful than ever in our choices and ask ourselves, what message is this photo sending?

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