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Media Ethics: Is It Appropriate to Publish Images of Dead or Dying People?

By on Thursday, September 13, 2012
US Ambassador Christopher Stevens

US Ambassador Christopher Stevens

I followed the news this week about the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as well as their Libyan guards, at the consulate in Benghazi on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Yesterday I was horrified to see images online of the injured and dying ambassador, which many outlets opted not to run (although some did – including the NY Times which ran an Agence France-Presse image in their online gallery of the dying ambassador and prompted criticism from readers and a commentary from the reader representative). NY Times staff felt the photo had “journalistic imperative” and proceeded to splice hairs on how the photo was labeled saying:

It’s notable that the caption stopped short of saying it was a photo of Mr. Stevens’s dead body. The caption reads, “A man, reportedly unconscious, identified as Mr. Stevens.”

As if people would not know who it was. Or this absurd splicing of nuance would blunt the pain felt by this man’s family and friends. The NY Times reader representative went on to say the news outlet was justified in running the photo, because it has run photos of other dead people as part of its news coverage.

Often those photos though are run without a name and show war deaths or civilian deaths en masse – it is not a situation where a major media event is reporting that four people died, with only two names available – leaving little doubt as to who the dying people are.

To make it even worse – the NY Times proceeded to argue that had only a more graphic image was available, they might not have run it:

“I can understand why people feel it’s more disturbing to see a photo of an American, particularly an American diplomat,” he said. For that reason, he said, editors chose a relatively distant image of Mr. Stevens, and placed it in the last position in the frequently updated gallery, where it would be less prominent. If only an extremely graphic photograph had been available, it might not have been used, Mr. Fisher said.

I was appalled by the photos online and the comments by the NY Times staff about them – especially given that the image they are running in the gallery on nytimes.com is not “relatively distant” but one of the more up close images available.

Graphic images like these define a person by the moment of their death – not the years of life and service. I couldn’t help but think of the Ambassador’s family and friends who were just finding out about this horrific tragedy – knowing that these images taken of the Ambassador in his last moments or after his death on the Internet would add to their sorrow and grief – and that the photos would live forever online.

The professional bereavement community counsels that seeing images like these can often complicate grief further for families and friends.  Bravo to the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal for choosing to not use the photos.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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