The Digital Journalist
Are These Victims Worthy?

by Erik Ugland and Karen Slattery

It is unfortunate but true that the worst human tragedies are often the subjects of the best photojournalism.

That was certainly the case last December when many of the world's top photographers documented the unearthly aftermath of the Asian tsunami and captured some of the most exquisite and excruciating images ever seen. Similar images appeared last summer after deadly hurricanes swept across the southern United States, killing more than 150 people. And from Oklahoma City to Columbine to 9-11, photojournalists have produced portfolios full of images that still resonate with us.

In each of these situations, photojournalists did extraordinary work under difficult conditions. They encountered subjects in situations of extreme vulnerability, and they grappled with complex ethical questions: Should we photograph the dead? Should we withhold particularly graphic images from the public? Should we leave family members, particularly children, alone to grieve privately? Much has been written about the delicacy of these choices. Our concern here, however, is not on where these lines ought to be drawn, but in how that line-drawing is shaped in often subtle and undetectable ways by journalists' embedded biases and perceptions of "the other."

Last December, three days after the tsunami struck, an Associated Press photo appeared on the front page of the New York Times showing an Indian woman standing amid the largely uncovered corpses of a dozen brown-skinned victims. All of them appeared to be very young. Two of them were toddlers. The woman, who had just discovered that her children were among the dead, was shown crying with her eyes closed, her hands on her head and a look of exhausted despair on her face.

It was an arresting image that told the story with heartbreaking clarity. But its capture and publication also forced the victims to surrender some of their privacy and, perhaps, their dignity. Images like this one were not uncommon in the U.S. media coverage of the tsunami, and they are typical of what one encounters whenever tragedies or natural disasters afflict people in foreign countries.

On the other hand, similar photographs did not appear in the U. S. media when scores of people were killed by hurricanes Charley, Francis, Jeanne and Ivan. Indeed, it is unlikely that a photo like the one taken in the Indian morgue would ever appear in a mainstream American newspaper if the subject was, say, a white woman from Jacksonville surrounded by the naked corpses of a dozen white American children.

Although the context was different, these types of photos were also not published when 3,000 people were killed in New York City. Images of corpses, or of friends and family reacting to the sight of the dead, did not appear on the pages and airwaves of the mainstream U. S. news media. Although some news organizations published images of people jumping from the burning towers, those publications were in the minority and many were criticized by readers who thought they had crossed a line. Whatever the merits of the photo from the Indian morgue, we doubt its publication elicited anything like the reaction of those upset by the "jumper" photos.

Likewise, pictures of the police, parents, friends or community members actually looking at or grieving over the bodies of the children gunned down at Columbine High School were absent from news coverage of the shooting. It may be that such photographic opportunities did not exist, but it is also likely that readers were spared exposure to some of the more graphic and jarring images from this incident. And even if access was a key factor, we doubt that it would have made a difference. Few editors would have permitted and many readers would have condemned the publication of any images of dead American schoolchildren.

So, the question arises: Are some victims' privacy interests more deserving of protection than others? In their book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argue that people in positions of power often make distinctions between "worthy" and "unworthy" victims, particularly when the respective victims reside in "enemy" versus "friendly" countries. The news media are part of this power structure and their judgments are often shaped by, and help exacerbate, this bifurcated view of the world.

We urge photojournalists and editors to apply the same standards to the publication or broadcast of images of foreign victims, particularly in Third World countries, that they do to American victims.

It is probably not the case that American or Western journalists act in deliberately prejudicial ways. Indeed, as a group they are more educated and probably more culturally aware than the average citizen. But, like all people, they harbor certain biases and predispositions, embedded through years of social conditioning that can manifest in destructive ways. And they also work in a field with established professional conventions that have themselves been shaped by these influences.

Some will surely disagree with the suggestion that images of victims vary depending on the race or ethnicity of the subjects. In most cases, that criticism is impossible to refute, because in nearly every instance, the victims share the same nationality, the same ethnicity, or both. That was not the case with the recent Asian tsunami, however, so it provides an interesting context for study.

Although the overwhelming number of tsunami victims were non-white, there were thousands of American, Australian and European victims as well. Some reports suggest that in Thailand, half of the victims were European tourists. Sweden, a country of just over 10 million people, lost more than 2,000 of its citizens in the disaster. In light of this, we should ask whether there are photos of Caucasian victims that we have not seen, even though they are comparable to published images of non-Caucasian victims in every way except the race of the subjects. We should also ask whether the photos that were published would have been handled the same way if the subjects had been blond-haired Swedes. We suspect not.

So, is a discrepancy in the treatment of victims ever justified? Some argue that it would be less problematic, for example, to publish a photo of a dead victim from Bangladesh in a U.S. newspaper than it would be to publish the same image in a Bangladeshi paper, because neither the victim nor his or her family would be likely to see the image in the American paper, or even know of its existence. Their privacy, as a result, would be less compromised. That is probably true. But the argument deflects attention from the fact that respect for human dignity requires us to consider the interests of victims as well as the interests of the audience. We also doubt that victims who would object to the use of their image in a paper in their own country would be perfectly comfortable with the same image being published elsewhere.

There are no simple solutions to these complex questions. The best that journalists can do, and the best that their readers and viewers can expect, is that they ask these questions as a matter of routine. That may be the best way to insure that they are not the unwitting perpetrators of a corrosive double standard.

It would be impossible for any of us to completely cleanse ourselves of biases and stereotypes that have been programmed into us through a lifetime of subtle but persistent influences. But, as human beings, it is possible to continually challenge ourselves about the nature of those assumptions, particularly as they relate to fellow humans whom we have encountered at their most solemn and vulnerable moments.

© Erik Ugland and Karen Slattery

Erik Ugland is an assistant professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in media ethics, law and policy.
Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.