You know what pisses me off? When every mainstream, new, or yet-to-be-classified media outlet blithely reposts pictures of victims in the process of suffering horrific violations of their human rights.
(Although if you answered “everything”, you are technically correct, but that’s not what this post is about.)
I’m referring to the photographs that ISIS released last week, showing the apparent extrajudicial execution of captured Iraqi soldiers. The images (which I discuss in greater detail here) were republished by virtually every Western media outlet that covered the massacre.
Disturbingly, both the Washington Post and the New York Times ran photos in which the victims’ faces are shown. Other outlets (BBC, The Guardian, Slate, and Al Jazeera) selected images in which the faces of those about to be murdered are obscured, but other identifying information such as clothing, haircut, and body type are clearly visible.
Let me pause here to point out that Iraqis have the internet. A few of them may even have forked over the cash to read more than 10 articles per month. It is therefore entirely possible that some of the parents, siblings, or children of the murdered men learned of their loved ones’ brutal deaths through a photograph posted on a newspaper website.
Even if the chances of emotional injury to the family members were nonexistent, this is still a terrible violation of the dignity and privacy of the massacre victims themselves. But identifying the victims of violence and human rights abuse is standard operating procedure for Western news organizations. The Washington Post once ran a series of photographs of a Kurdish child being subjected to female genital mutilation. And the New York Times is, of course, the venue in which Nicholas Kristof published the name and picture of a nine year old (nine!!!) victim of rape.
Kristof’s offense was particularly egregious. It is the stated policy of the New York Times not to name rape victims. And, as Jina Moore pointed out at the time, the rules are even stricter when it comes to child victims. Nevertheless, he pushed back. In a blog post responding his critics, Kristof argued that images and identifying information are necessary to inspire readers’ compassion for faraway people in need of help.
This is the logic that motivates the inclusion of photos, videos, and personal anecdotes in human rights advocacy and appeals for humanitarian aid. (And Amanda and I are on record with our concerns about this approach, which too often seems to permit assessments by advocates or journalists that the “cause” and “awareness” are more important than the individual victims.) However, this line of reasoning doesn’t fully apply to straight news coverage. There isn’t really an argument to be made that running graphic images of their suffering in a wire story helps victims.
Instead, many reporters seem to be unthinkingly following the “if it bleeds, it leads” directive. The images of hundreds of Iraqi men waiting to be shot in the head, like the pictures of partially undressed bodies of Tamil prisoners of war or sex trafficked Cambodian children are attention-grabbing and compelling. But if “shining a light on atrocities” or “raising money for the victims” aren’t good enough reasons to disregard basic human decency, than increasing web traffic and selling newspapers isn’t either.