Media Ethics: Publication of Graphic, Disturbing Images essay

Abstract

Photography is an important aspect of journalists’ everyday practice. With the responsibility to provide truthful and timely information while still respecting the dignity of victims of war, for example, the journalists often find themselves in an ethical dilemma. Should they publish disturbing graphic images? If they do so, will they be disrespecting the victims and subjecting their families and friends to unwarranted distress? If they do not, will they be absconding from their duty to provide truthful information to their readers? This research essay was conceived in the light of this ethical dilemma. In the major case study, Al Arabiya published disturbing images that “shook the world”. The first picture was depicting the driven ashore body of a Syrian boy who had drowned. Others included some events of the recent years, which had been unfortunately republished more than once.

Was there any justification for this publication? The answer to this was, to some extent, sorting through an extensive literature review where authors agreed that there are some cases when disturbing images should be published. If it helps to bring to light the horrors of war, for instance, then the media should publish them. However, if the sole value is to increase the sales and promote emotional concern, then the media should reconsider. Such values as the presentation of truthful information as well as adherence to the law are at play when making such a decision. Further, the principles of truth versus humanness as well as freedom versus justice should also be considered when publishing graphic images. The paper does not support the publication of the images since it is based on sensationalism purposes. It is recommended that in making such a decision, Al Arabiya should apply the communitarian ethical approach in balancing between informing the readers and minimizing any possible harm.

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Introduction

Journalism has the fundamental objective of providing people with news, views, information, and comments on issues and matters of public interest in a fair, truthful, unprejudiced, sober, and decent approach. As such, the media has the mandate to conduct itself in ways that adhere to norms, rules, and laws while demonstrating professionalism. The Egyptian media remains prominent in the Arab region. This is an aspect that can be attributed to a large audience and increase freedom from being controlled by the government. However, recent years have seen a rivulet of violent imagery from television in terms of printing images. It is now growing to a torrent in Egypt compared with such countries as the USA, where explicit images are increasingly censored. Should the media in Egypt be publishing disturbing graphic images? Is publishing graphic images disrespectful to the victims’ families and friends? Based on the article by Al Arabiya titled “Photo of Drowned Syrian Child Among Images That Shook the World,” this paper analyses the debate about the ethicality or the lack of it in publishing violent and disturbing graphic images and takes a stand on whether the Arab news agency should have published the article.

It is important to discuss the issue since there are increasingly differing views in Egypt and other countries on whether the media should publish such images. Furthermore, the media in Egypt does not seem to slow down in publicating the shocking material. The Kerdasa massacre, for example, was reported by the media in Egypt with graphic images. Bloody scenes, dead and mutilated bodies were flashed in the newspapers regardless of the distress they would cause to the people. The media also displayed graphic images of beheading the Christians  by the Islamic State Group. Further, when Muammar Gadhafi was shot, the media in Egypt printed bloody shots of the deceased, an image that evoked discussions about the ethicality of publishing such images. What do journalists consider before making the decision to publish graphic images? There are two major ethical issues at play for journalists. First, it is the media’s obligation to balance their aspiration to gaudily tell a story. The second factor is the responsibility to abate harm as well as to show humanness to the victims, their families, and their friends. Discussing this ethical issue, therefore, is important as it affects journalists in their daily conduct. Further, the issue is a point of debate across the journalism landscape, especially with the steady growth of the internet and the extensive adoption of cameraphones causing a flood of new content across the globe.

Case Facts

In the major case of this essay, the Al Arabiya news website posted photos of Allan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, whose body had been driven ashore. The newspaper also included other images which, according to the website, had shaken the world at different times. They included the body of twelve-year-old Mohammad who was shot dead during a crossfire between Israeli and Palestinian forces, popular but distressing image of a vulture preying on a malnourished Sudanese toddler, Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi burning, and the Chinese “Tank Man”.

The last four images had been initially published in the years when the incidents occurred, but Al Arabiya had republished them again in 2015. Was this justifiable? Considering that Allan’s father lost both of his sons in the sail, was the media being insensitive? It can be a challenging ethical balance for journalists to strike between providing the necessary and available information and not becoming platforms for insensitivity towards victims’ family members. As the recent issues of image publishing in Egypt demonstrate and the industry norms increasingly begin to crystalize around the same issue, some ethical borders that should not be crossed undeniably need to be drawn.

Literature Review

Much has been written about the justification and ethicality or the lack of it in publishing disturbing graphic images. The ferocity of tragedies being witnessed in the 21st century is increasingly contributing to the already dubious archive of troubling images that spur ethics-related opinions among journalists, editors, and photographers. Are there the situations that necessitate publishing such images? Ritchin asserts that indeed, there are times when the media has to publish the images showing them as gruesome as they are in reality. For instance, to document the horrifying aftermaths of war, the media has to print such images. During the Vietnam War, the media published images of mutilated bodies, dead people, and naked children to demonstrate the disastrous effects of war.

It has been argued that such graphic images did amplify the call to end the war. If the photos had not been broadcast to the world, as Fahmy asserts, then people would not have seen the real situation as demonstrated by the pictures. Balzert Simon, an acclaimed German journalist, argues that in cases where politicians or governments might be promulgating the myth that the war is clean, then graphic pictures may be necessary to show the real situation to the world. Balzert advises journalists to make sure that graphic images are not just published for shock value or aesthetic motives only. Instead, such images should be published because they deliver pertinent and extremely newsworthy information.

Ward also agrees that when there is an overriding and admissible need by the public to see graphic images, then the media has to publish them. For example, when Muammar Gadhafi, the Libyan dictator, was brutally murdered, the media in Egypt and around the world published the image in first pages. Why? This person was not just a layman. He was a public figure just as in the case of celebrities. To many readers’ dismay, the Guardian published the image at the front page. Many readers viewed such an approach as celebratory to Gaddafi’s death. However, one of Guardian’s commentators defended this decision arguing that the occurrence was worth breaking the journalistic rules. Further, since the pictures were all over the internet, the Guardian would not have ignored them. According to the commentator, the editors would have failed if they did not manage to report Gadhafi’s death as “gruesome, horrifying and grisly” as it was indeed.

The media might also choose to publish such images when they might call for acting in a situation that needs to be addressed. According to the New York Times, activists argued that it was important to have Allan’s lifeless body published (as it was actually done by Al Arabiya) in order to draw as much attention to the issue as possible. As inhumane and insensitive as it might seem, the publication of the image helped demonstrate the actual situation in Syria. Another example is demonstrated in the case given by Morse. He explains that in 1991, the Guardian was accused of not showing enough evidence of the brutality of the Gulf War. A few days after the call, the Guardian published the picture of an Iraqi soldier who had been incinerated. Such images, as Ritchin asserts, are important in calling for action.

The coverage of the Haitian earthquake in 2010 was condemned by many people, with some arguing that the media was showing more disturbing images than it was necessary. However, Hermantin and Farell, the representatives of two condemned media channels, argued that “you could write a million times that 100,000 people are dead in the streets, but if you do not see it for yourself or in pictures, it will not be registered”.  Further, justifying the publication of the Washington Post’s decision to publish Allan’s body, Liz Sly said that the dignity of the victims would be violated if the media failed to publicize them, hence letting them die in the dark. In their study, Thomas and Shahira established that though regarding it as distressing, the viewers of the Aljazeera English news supported the publication of such images. They expressed that this is the only way of drawing attention to what is happening in the world, thus creating a platform for corrective action. As such, when there is a need to provide the real situation about an incident, then publishing of some images may be important. The images might be a call for action to the people and the government.

On the contrary, there are arguments against the publication of such images. The major argument is that such images are inhumane, disrespect the victims, and remind the families and friends of their loss. For everyday citizens, disturbing graphic images may do more harm than necessary to tell the story. As such, journalists should avoid the publication of such images as much as possible. Graphic images can be damaging, incredibly ferocious, and too ghastly for the sensitive readers. Further, the images can also spark atrocity, cause controversy, and bloat the issue that necessitated the publication of such images. For instance, there has been much debate about the repetitive showing of videos and images of the September 11th attack. To some people, the overexposure has been said to intensify fear and inhibit the healing process.

Ward also asserts that the publication of dead bodies, for example, may put the friends and loved ones to unnecessary grief, especially when the images are being published more than once. For example, in the Al Arabiya’s article, some of the images are as old as being initially published ten years ago; hence, there is no need to republish such images. Morse also notes that covering the dead remains a largely controversial issue. Death, especially when it is hard, unjustifiable, ruthless, as well as unanticipated makes the event newsworthy. Such deaths (as it was in the case in Gaddafi’s death) are usually unexpected, hence breaking the natural and systematic order of things, bearing societal implication, and generating rejoinders from an audience. However, visual documentation of the same should be done keenly since the material may be seen as an element of the “theater of violence”. As far as such photographs aid in rendering realism in a genuine and telling way, journalists should be keen to not do more harm than necessary to victims’ families and friends. In addressing the same issue, Susan Sontag  asserted that “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock, but they are not of much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else. They haunt us.”

Even though photographs are the screams of the world, as Lewis describes them, journalists should not put up images for sales or emotional value. If the images in the case study article might have changed the world, what was the intended value in publishing them? Most of what people term as iconic images which have impacted the world, including but not limited to the nine-year-old naked Vietnamese girl, the Falling Man by Richard Drew, the beheading of James Foley and Steven Sotloff among others, have generated heated debates over the ethicality of it. Is there any sense of reposting the same pictures? If such graphic images are going to be printed, then this option should be taken when it is the only approach to bring the situation to light.

Regardless of the differing opinions, there is an unanimity that the publication of graphic images presents a moral dilemma. This subsequently places the responsibility of journalists to broadcast purposeful information in direct conflict with the obligation to avoid harm to the parties who have already gone through emotional anguish. Thus, the conflict of the two presents an apparent ethical dilemma.

Critical Thinking and Analysis

From the literature review, there are differing opinions on why and when graphic images should be published. The ethical dilemma of the case, therefore, is whether Al Arabiya should have published the images. Was it ethical to have the picture of Allan published and to also republish the other disturbing graphic images from the past years? One might argue that this was an action taken too far, especially because some of the images were being published more than three times. However, on the one hand, the publication of Allan’s lifeless body might have been justified by the need to bring people closer to the real occurrences in Syria. On the other hand, publishing the picture could have caused distress and indicated the lack of respect for the boy’s family. Were the images going to impact or just cause more harm?

Thus, the conflicting principles present the ethical dilemma on whether Al Arabiya should have published the images. When editors are making decisions of whether to publish, for example, war images, they face ethical responsibilities of honoring different types of duties that they have to respect. For example, they have to completely inform and to curtail the occurrence of damage to the victims’ families among others. The decision by Al Arabiya to publish the dreadful images may be reasoned right as it portrays the situation in Syria realistically. The decision may also be considered wrong as it seems to exploit calamities to sell news. Further, if such images like in the case of Allan Kurdi are not published, the media may be judged as expurgating and sanitizing the conflict happening, whereas not publishing the images may be regarded as an accountable restraint.

As such, in the decision to publish or not to publish, several values might be at play. For example, the need to provide complete and truthful information to the public may override the need to observe journalistic ethics. If the media, for instance, established that there was more going on during a war than the government was acknowledging, then publishing such images may be justified. Publishing the picture of Kurdi might have been insensitive, but there have been importance on publishing the same to demonstrate why there is a need for reconsideration of the refugees’ issue. On the contrary, respect for the law is also at play in the case. All journalists should observe the laws and ethics guiding the practice. Before publishing the images, Al Arabiya should have considered the rules guiding the publication of such images.

Further, the principles of the case include truth versus humanness as well as freedom versus justice. In the given case, it is important for the media to publish the images in order to portray the truthfulness and reality of the situation. If the pictures of the Vietnam War, for example, were not published, the war might probably have taken longer than it actually did. In determining the images to be published, the principle of truthfulness, therefore, does play a major role. However, even with the attempt to present the truth, journalists should observe the principles of humanness. Here, they should protect the victims’ dignity as well as their families and friends. Al Arabiya’s publication of the images may be perceived as demonstrating the absence of respect and humanness, especially when the pictures are being printed for the third or fourth time. It makes little sense to subject the families and friends to the pain and distress anew.

The principle of freedom allows journalists to possess the freedom to choose the images to publish. Based on their instincts and moral standings, journalists should make prudent choices when publishing graphic images. However, while they still have the freedom to choose what images to publish, journalists are governed by the principle of justice. Does one do a certain cultural or religious justice by publishing graphic images of its people? In the Haiti earthquake, for example, there were complaints that the media did no justice to the people by publishing images that were too graphic. According to Emmet, the media was disrespectful to the culture of the people. In Al Arabiya’s case, one may argue that there was little justice to the family and friends associated with the pictures being published for the second or the third time. People have the right to heal and move on, and publishing the images gave them little or no room for it. The principles of truth versus humanness as well as freedom versus justice were chosen as they not only consider the ethical dilemmas that journalists find themselves in when trying to do their duties, but because they also encompass the rights of victims and readers.

Conclusion and Recommendation for a Solution

The conduct of journalism is more of an ethical consideration as opposed to the question of judiciousness, custom, or decree, especially when it appraises conduct in the light of the ultimate purpose and social accountability of journalists. In the case study, for example, the media has the moral duty to inform the people by providing them with truthful and timely information. Being the fourth estate, the media also owes its loyalty to the government, hence the decision to either publish or not to publish some images. In the cases of wars, for example, should they publish the horrors of the war when the government claims it is a clean war? In the case study, the media also had the moral duty to uphold humanness to the victims, but it was also expected to bring the world to light with the happenings in Syria. The journalists told the story that could not be told by descriptions. Personally, I am loyal with the paper in this case. Al Arabiya should not have published the images since there was evidently no new information being brought to light. Allan’s story, for example, had been covered numerous times after the incident happened. Hence, there was no need to compile the list, especially when it included the pictures. The images were being republished, thus re-subjecting the family members and friends of the victims to recent grief. Further, I feel that Al Arabiya only published the images for sentimental value and for increasing their sales. The newspaper was, to a certain extent, exploiting the calamities to make news. The decision to publish the images can be said to have been an element of sensationalism.

A recommendation for the newspaper would be to adopt the communitarian ethical approach in deciding whether to publish disturbing graphic images. This approach is suitable as it focusses on the benefits that the entire society might reap from an action. Further, there is no preferentialism as it would be in a utilitarianism approach. Moreover, the journalists hold themselves responsible for their social duties within society. Additionally, this approach gives pre-eminence to humanness, justice, and truth in that order. If the images under question do not depict humanness, disrespect the victims, and do not foster justice or truth, then the journalists should not publish them.

In conclusion, the question of whether it is ethical to publish disturbing graphic images will be there for a long time, especially with the increased advancement in technology. Evidently, it is not easy for a journalist to make a choice on the same since they have duties to be fulfilled while being loyal to different stakeholders. The media should always assess the prospective repercussion when making choices on distressing image publication. If it is evident that there will be more positive results, then they may print the images. Naturally, the definition of ethics remains litigious among the media stakeholders. However, the principles of minimizing harm, value added to information by disturbing images, public interest, or the intended results should indicate the media’s choice on whether to publish graphic images or not.

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Media Ethics: Publication of Graphic, Disturbing Images essay

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