Thursday, September 3, 2015

Horrifying photo of Syrian child leaves tough choices for journalists

The first time I saw the picture, I looked away quickly, shocked. The second time I saw it, tears welled up in my eyes.

If you haven’t seen the image, consider yourself fortunate, because it will haunt you. The photo is of a small boy, a Syrian refugee, who drowned and washed ashore in Turkey. The New York Times said said that the boy was identified as three year old Aylan. The body of his five-year-old brother, Galip, washed up on another part of the beach.

The only comparably awful photo I can think of is the now-iconic 1993 picture of a skeletal, starving Sudanese child menaced by a seemingly impatient vulture.

Aylan’s photo, and commentary about it, exploded on social media on Wednesday. I’ve seen no estimate yet on how many times the picture was shared, but it must be in the millions. A Google news search for “Syrian child beach body” produced 1.8 million hits only 24 hours after the photo went viral.

In an admittedly limited perusal of newspapers from around the world, I was able to find the single most jarring photo of Aylan, alone and face down in the sand, on only  one front page—Almustaqbal newspaper in Beirut.  The others that used a photo of the incident (New York Daily News, Metro Toronto, Buenos Aires Herald, Haber Expres Turkey, Washington Post, etc.) used almost-as-horrific pictures of a policeman carrying the youngster from the beach or of the policeman standing near the body, presumably ready to scoop him up.   The New York Times did not use any photos of this incident, but did have a photo of refugee children on its front page.

Peace journalism, which encourages a more thoughtful and less sensational approach to reporting, is divided on the issue of whether Aylan’s picture should be used.

From one angle, peace journalism would encourage media to avoid sensationalizing the event, to consider the feelings of the remaining family and community, and to write and show the story in such a way so as to not make the situation even worse. This  school of thought would say that the picture should not be used because it would have the appearance of cheap sensationalism, and of taking unfair advantage of those who are vulnerable and powerless—of using this tragedy to sell newspapers and broadcasts. PJ would also ask if the story can be told without the horrible image, and if the image itself is simply too graphic.  In my peace journalism class at Park University this week, we discussed the potential of inflammatory images like this to numb viewers to a crisis.

However, peace journalism could also be used to justify showing the picture. If accuracy is our fundamental principle, would it be possible to accurately tell the story without Aylan’s picture? PJ asks that a voice be given to the voiceless in our societies, and certainly Aylan and the other 2500 migrants who have died this year trying to escape hell deserve to have their voices heard.

Not surprisingly, Aylan’s photo sparked debate inside newsrooms inside newsrooms about whether to publish or even share the images. Robert Mackey, writing in the New York Times, said, "A number of reporters argued forcefully that is was necessary to confront the public with the human toll of the war in Syria, and the impact of policies that make it difficult for refugees to find asylum in Europe. But many editors were concerned about shocking their readers and wanted to avoid the appearance of trafficking in sensational images for profit." (New York Times, Sept. 2, 2015).
 (New York Times, Sept. 2, 2015).

As I ponder what I would do as an editor or producer, my thoughts drift back to the dozens of interview and interactions I’ve had with Syrian refugees in the last year. I’d like to ask the kindergarten teacher at the refugee camp near Adana, Turkey her impressions of Aylan’s picture, and whether using it would do more harm than good. I’d like to ask Osama, who teaches English at the same camp, if publishing the image would help make Europeans treat the refugees more like people and less like problems.

Peace journalism asks media to consider the consequences of their reporting. The teacher, Osama, and other Syrians I talked to said they were so open with me and other journalists because they understood the importance of having their story told, and of jarring worldwide opinion. Given this, I believe they (and I) would reluctantly support using Aylan’s picture and telling his story in the hopes of helping people understand the gravity of the refugee crisis. 

The UK’s Independent newspaper said it best when writing about their decision to use two photos of Aylan. “They are extraordinary images and serve as a stark reminder that, as European leaders increasingly try to prevent refugees from settling in the continent, more and more refugees are dying in their desperation to flee persecution and reach safety. The Independent has taken the decision to publish these images because, among the often glib words about the ‘ongoing migrant crisis’, it is all too easy to forget the reality of the desperate situation facing many refugees.” (The Independent, Sept. 3, 2015).

Steven Youngblood is director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University, and author of “Peace Journalism: Principles and Practice,” a textbook to be published in 2016).

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