It's a pretty regular topic in newsrooms across the country: How to handle photographs of the dead and dying.
This week, the issue was front and center on the New York Times website. The Times chose to run a photo of Chris Stevens—the American ambassador who was killed in Libya on Tuesday—as he lay (reportedly) unconscious, presumably moments before his death.
The photo (which can be seen here, if you want. It is slide 10) is jarring and uncomfortable, showing in one image what more than a million words could ever relay about death and destruction and chaos. Naturally, many people have criticized the Times for running the photo, though others said they saw the journalistic merit in doing so.
The Times' public editor wrote about the decision to run the photo online, arguing that it was the right call. Putting it on the front page of Wednesday's paper might have been a different story, but having it as the 10th photo was OK, Margaret Sullivan wrote.
“It’s horrifying but there is a journalistic imperative,” Times associate managing editor Ian Fisher told Sullivan. “It’s news.”
This reminds me of a similar debate and discussion around the "Falling Man" photograph, which depicts an unidentified man falling to his death from the top of the World Trade Center, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The photo appeared in several papers around the world, including the Times on Sept. 12, 2001. It appeared only once because of criticism and anger from readers.
So who's right and who's wrong?
I don't think there is a clear answer to that. If people are disturbed by a particular photo, it's no one's right to tell them to not be disturbed. And news organizations, conversely, have the right to run photos that they shoot.
I will say that running a photo on the front page of a newspaper versus as the 10th slide in an online gallery makes a significant difference. I don't think the Stevens photo would be appropriate as a Page One photo—to me, the number of people who would see the photo and be offended outweighs the news value here. However, I am OK with the photo being in an online gallery. I do think there is value in showing the image, as it is (uncomfortable as it may be) part of the narrative.
The Times public editor also makes a compelling point—we regularly show images of the dead and dying from other countries (like how photos of a dead Muammar Gaddafi circulated widely last year) and don't seem to show nearly the distaste. Yes, a dead American naturally elicits a stronger response, but the public editor writes, "If you accept the idea that each human life has the same value and dignity, and there is no consistent objection to seeing images of the dead from other countries, it’s hard to mount a reasonable argument against what editors here chose to do." I tend to agree.
But of course, this argument is coming from someone who has been immersed in journalism for the last five years. I would love to hear some perspectives from non-journalists. In the comments section below, feel free to share your thoughts on this issue: When, if ever, is it OK to show images of the dead and dying in the media?