Ethical considerations when using a defining photo

Hannah Storm

Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Angie Valeria may become to the crisis on the Mexican-US border what the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, became in 2015: a defining picture that says more about a humanitarian tragedy than any statistics and policy arguments.

Mr Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter – named by some news outlets as Angie Valeria and others as Valeria – drowned crossing the Rio Grande, the river separating Mexico from the United States. In April they left their home in El Salvador with Angie Valeria’s mother, Tania Vanessa Ávalos. They hoped to claim asylum in the US and save up enough money to give them their own home, according to interviews with Mr Martínez’s mother, Rosa Ramírez, and reports citing comments Ms Ávalos made to government officials.

The potent image of the two lifeless bodies – the little girl tucked under her father’s t-shirt, her arm draped around his shoulder – was originally taken by Julia Le Duc, a reporter for La Jornada in Mexico and later acquired by the Associated Press, after which it was distributed and published widely.

The decisions surrounding the publication of an image such as this are many and difficult for news editors and raise numerous ethical considerations. Should they use the image and if so where and how? Should it be accompanied by a warning; should audiences be given the choice to see it or otherwise? What words and language should be used to describe the image and the individuals in it? How do journalists ensure they get the names and details correct about those they are reporting on? What added context needs to be given to the story of the conditions faced by families like this one? The words of Mr Martínez’s mother and wife gave an insight into his journey and the decisions he made, and a context to the photo, but what responsibilities do journalists have to those on whom they report in these instances and to those they interview who have experienced trauma? How do journalists minimise harm to those who see the image and to others – specifically the community impacted by the image? How did journalists ensure that this image is used for its news value and not gratuitously?

In this instance, it’s hard to ignore the news value.

The tragedy of Mr Martínez and his daughter speaks to the desperate measures many people have taken in order to try to claim asylum in the United States and to the consequences of the US government’s policies on its southern border.  They are by no means the only people to die trying to reach the United States, but this week their plight has highlighted that of those whose names are rarely shared in the media.

Now the photo of them joins other iconic images – like Nilufer Demir’s of Alan Kurdi or Kevin Carter’s photograph of a vulture watching a starving child in Ayod, Sudan (now South Sudan), or Nick Ut’s picture of Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old girl fleeing an airstrike during the Vietnam war, more widely known as ‘Napalm Girl’. Each of these images includes children and highlights the human suffering of innocent victims of political machinations – images that have galvanised public sentiment, at least in the short term.


The EJN hosted a debate in 2017 at the Frontline Club about media use of Alan Kurdi’s image with the journalists behind Sea of Pictures, a documentary how his image went viral and became a symbol of the 2015 refugee crisis.


The image of Alan Kurdi, his small lifeless body on a Turkish beach, did more to change the tone of the debate around the refugee crisis than anything else that year. But the compassion that resulted from the potency of that image didn’t last and the increase in donations and aid along with a temporary toning down of anti-refugee rhetoric were temporary.

It’s too early to see if this latest image changes the debate in the United States, where President Donald Trump has used hate speech against people seeking refuge at his country’s border, calling them ‘animals’.

What is clear is that the photograph of the Salvadoran father and daughter has brought the crisis at the southern border of the United States back to the top of the news agenda domestically and in many international news outlets.

Now journalists need to ensure that they do not exploit the image of this father and daughter, or their story, and that they continue to give serious consideration to reporting the urgent issue of migration, acting with humanity, reporting fairly, accurately and with the context it needs.

EJN Resources on Ethical Migration Reporting

The EJN has recently collaborated with the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) to create online training resources for journalists reporting on migration.

The toolkit can be accessed here: http://e-learning.fra.europa.eu

Improving the quality of migration reporting has been a priority for the Ethical Journalism Network in recent years, conducting two major studies on migration coverage, creating practical tools for journalists.

The Ethical Journalism Network has developed guidelines for journalists working on migration which are available as an infographic in various languages and in this video by our Chair, Dorothy Byrne, the head of Channel 4 News and Current Affairs.


In 2015 the EJN published Moving Stories, an international review of how media cover migration.

Two of the 15 chapters focused on Mexico and the United States. Read the chapters below or download the full report here.


Other EJN resources on migration reporting: