Syria: Balancing act of printing images of war
Is it appropriate for news outlets to use distressing pictures of the dead?
Protesters hold up images during a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria, yesterday. Syrians living in Bulgaria had gathered to protest against a suspected chemical weapons attack in Damascus. Photograph: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters
The attack in Ghouta in eastern Damascus that reportedly claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people on Wednesday will most likely be recorded as one of the worst atrocities of this decade, both for the scale and the alleged use of chemical weapons.
The photographs that came through the wire services in the aftermath of the attack were extremely distressing, showing large numbers of bodies and the acute suffering of survivors. Most upsetting of all was the large number of young victims – it is hard to contemplate, never mind witness, the suffering of innocent children in such a manner. Even by the standards of a brutal civil war that has stretched on for two years, these were disturbing images.
How does a newspaper attempt to honestly depict such an atrocity without unnecessarily upsetting or offending readers? It is a question of ethics and judgment that journalists must grapple with all too often in recent times. In last Saturday’s Irish Times, we ran a photograph of the shrouded victims of a shooting in Egypt. It was a stark, forceful image, and provoked some complaints.
“The Irish Times has always been conscious of the impact of photographs,” says Editor Kevin O’Sullivan. “Over the years, when we felt it was appropriate, we have published photographs showing the victims of violence – Bloody Sunday is an obvious and important example. But we are very conscious of our reader’s sensitivities, and we make an intense evaluation of the situa- tion on a case-by-case basis.”
Picture Editor Frank Miller echoes that approach: “It’s a hard line to tread, but we can’t have a hard and fast rule against showing images of bodies, because certain stories require it. The public in general can get very upset, but we have a responsibility as journalists to tell the story as honestly and truthfully as possible. With a situation like this, it’s very difficult to visually tell a story without showing some bodies. It’s a question of how to balance the two without upsetting or repulsing readers, but also staying true to the story.”
It is testimony to the unique power of photojournalism that many of the most significant episodes of the past century are remembered in the collective consciousness by the photographs that captured their essence. That is particularly true of the most violent incidents, where photographers have borne witness for all of us, recording scenes of dead soldiers in the trenches of the first World War, of Nazi concentration camps, of a girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam. As events this week showed, that responsibility to capture the truth of an event, no matter how harrowing, is more vital than ever.