What is the news value of the photo of a dead man?


General Culture, General Photography

On September 11, 2012, the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three of his staff were killed. There is a slideshow going along the report, the last photograph of which shows, to quote its caption, “a man, reportedly unconscious, identified as Mr. Stevens.” The US State Department asked the news organization to remove the photograph, which, perhaps as could have been expected, it denied, “citing the news value of the Agence France-Presse photograph.” (note the specificity of the source: it’s an “Agence France-Presse photograph”) (more)

The Times reproduces the response of Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, to the State Department, the key part being

“Such decisions are never easy, and this one was harder than most. But this chaotic and violent event was extremely significant as a news story, and we believe this photo helps to convey that situation to Times readers in a powerful way. On that basis, we think the photo was newsworthy and important to our coverage. We did, however, try to avoid presenting the picture in a sensational or insensitive way.”
I suppose we can all easily agree on the fact that the “event was extremely significant as a news story.” But let’s talk about what follows, namely the belief that “this photo helps to convey that situation to Times readers in a powerful way.”

Just as an aside, I don’t buy that last sentence at all: Of course, once you put that photo into a slide show on the website’s front page, it’s being used in a sensational way. The Times can’t be so naive and/or foolish to assume nobody would notice and/or raise a stink. Very obviously seeing the photograph reproduced will strike many people as utterly insensitive (this writer included).

So then let’s ask: In what way exactly does seeing the photo of a dead or dying man (it’s impossible to tell from the photograph) help convey the situation, namely the attack on the consulate and the resulting damage, which includes the death of four people?

Let’s assume the photo would not have been reproduced. To only talk about the images from Libya, we would then have been left with a night-time photograph of a burning car and building with an armed and agitated man holding what looks like some semi-automatic rifle (picture 6; I’m referring to the numbers of the images in this story) and two day-time photos of some completely burned out/destroyed rooms (picture 8, also picture 9). Those aren’t powerful enough? Those would not have been able to convey to people that a powerful attack had happened and that four people died? Is that what we are supposed to believe?

Needless to say, once you start discussing this topic, there are all kinds of obvious responses, the easiest perhaps being that since our media love showing corpses of foreigners they better show our own as well. Fair enough, I suppose. But what I am actually interested in here is to ask whether or maybe more precisely under which circumstances showing the bodies of dead or dying people (regardless of where they are from) has any news value. And I am convinced that the answer to that has got to be a bit smarter than saying that if the body is connected to the news item in question then you got your newsworthiness. Not so!

I am convinced that we better face the consequences of our actions, and we also need to be able to face the consequences of other people’s actions that have direct repercussions for us. That said, from there it is not a simple and obvious step to demand that we need to see the corpses of people blown up by our drones or, in this current case, the body of the dead or dying ambassador to Libya. In much the same way, if there is shootout in Manhattan then we also do not need to see the dead bodies of the various victims (as happened just a little while ago). Being told what happened is enough - seeing the bodies does not add even the tiniest amount of extra insight. And that is what we need to hold our news organizations accountable for: To provide us with accurate information and to help us gain insight.

What this means, however, is not that there is a solution that applies equally well to all cases, because I’d actually like to take the word “newsworthy” rather seriously. When Osama Bin Laden was killed by US special forces deep inside Pakistan, I argued that we needed to see the body of the dead terrorist mastermind. Bin Laden, after all, had become such an icon to so many people - to us, as the evil terror mastermind, to his followers as the genius terror mastermind - that seeing visual evidence of his death would have been a cathartic moment. This situation was comparable with many Libyans flocking to the meat cooler where the corpse of Muammar Qaddafi was kept: They really needed to see that the man who had terrorized the country for many decades was dead. But those are very different situations than the current one. Bin Laden and Qaddafi were very well-known public figures that had a larger image connected to them: Because we had seen them so often in photographs before, because their images held such power over us, photographs of their corpses were truly newsworthy.

Most people, however, do not fit into that kind of category at all. Most people do not exist as mental images in the larger public’s mind. I think a pretty simply rule would be to say that anyone who does not exist as a mental image in the larger public’s mind should be granted the dignity (yes, dignity) not to have her or his dead body shown in a news context (Not to mention what the relatives have to go through). There is no newsworthiness to showing such a photograph, as the case of Mr Stevens makes very clear. Mind you, not to the New York Times - interestingly enough, they don’t plan on using the photo in the print edition, the reasoning being that the paper will come out “a full 24 hours later.” This makes you wonder whether the event will still be “extremely significant as a news story” in 24 hours - I’m tempted to think it will be, so the time delay can’t really be the reason, can it?

My simple rule in all likelihood is too simple. I can already think of all kinds of situations where showing the photograph of a dead person who was unknown to the larger public still would be newsworthy. But what I’m really after here is that when someone says that such a photograph is “newsworthy,” then I’d really like to hear why.

“Newsworthy” must mean more than getting the “eyeballs”, the number of visitors to a website. “Newsworthy” must mean more than a photograph being connected to a news story. “Newsworthy” must mean that we, the viewers/readers, gain crucial insight into something that we would not have been able to grasp otherwise. If there is such crucial insight to be had then the general public needs to be able to see. Otherwise, we better grant the dead person the basic dignity everybody deserves, the basic dignity we, in all likelihood, would like to claim for ourselves as well.