‘Mixed messages: Media coverage of migration and fatalities’, by Aidan White and Ann Singleton, was originally published as a chapter in ‘Fatal Journeys – Volume 3 – PART 1 – Improving Data on Missing Migrants’.
Copyright: IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre GMDAC 2017. Re-published with permission.
The boy on the beach: How media reacted
The dramatic and moving picture of the small boy found dead on a Turkish beach became one of the most stirring images of journalism in 2015, but it raised many questions about how media report death and about issues related to privacy. These are no small questions, and in preparing this article, the authors agreed that the discussion of the picture and its use could be usefully undertaken without repeating the harm caused to the family by naming him and reproducing the image of his body, rather than one of him alive and with his family. Inside journalism, many had mixed feelings about using the picture. In many countries, editorial comments sought to justify their decisions on use of the picture and identifying the victim and his family. Journalists took to interviewing colleagues about their concerns.(46)
The editorial process involved in publishing images of dead migrants, or indeed other victims of violence, has not been widely studied, but this picture stirred up discussion in editorial offices around the world and became the theme for a special report for the issue of Ethics in the News, published by the Ethical Journalism Network in January 2017.(47) This report, by Dutch filmmakers Misja Pekel and Maud van de Reijt, examined the way media used the picture and considered the dilemmas faced by photo editors and publishers.
The authors canvassed opinion among editorial leaders and asked whether it is ethically permissible to print photos of the body of this young child. What consideration is there of the privacy and grief of the boy’s family? What thought has been given to its impact on the media audience, some of them young and vulnerable? And what made this picture special among the thousands of other images of suffering and death involving refugees and migrants?
A day after the photo went viral, Serge Ricco, art director of French magazine L’Obs, decided he would not publish it. Ricco told the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad: “I’m thinking of the dignity of the child. Moreover, this photo will not change the course of history in any way.”
Most editors disagreed (as did Ricco’s colleagues on the online edition of L’Obs who took their own decision to publish), but the treatment of the picture owed more to its aesthetic quality than simply telling the story of a single death.
Journalists in their reporting of horrific events tend to avoid the full horrors of human suffering; as the photo editor of the Dutch newspaper Trouw put it: “Before, we only saw pictures of decayed bodies. These you simply do not show. [This] photo was the first one that made you wonder: is he asleep or is he dead? That is why we thought it was reasonable to print this picture.”
This raises not only a question about the aesthetic value of the picture, but whether such an approach which marginalizes other concerns, regarding the dignity of the victim and the privacy of the family concerned, reflects a Eurocentric lens through which the crisis is observed.
Whatever quality the image had, there is no doubt that the influence of social media was profoundly important. At Le Monde, for instance, the photos of the dead child arrived too late for that day’s paper. They were published a day later. Nicolas Jiminez, photo editor-in-chief explained: “During the evening the photos became major news. I received them … during the whole day via social media. Also from friends and family to such a point you can’t ignore it anymore.”
This reflects the power of social media to drive the news agenda. Something that is viral online is difficult to ignore by journalists and media, particularly when they are increasingly dependent upon a business model that relies upon sensational news information to generate online advertising revenues.
The problem is that online information, unlike journalism, is often value-free, and there is no distinction between information that is truthful or misleading and fake.
For the Dutch newspaper Het Algemeen Dagblad, the lack of context and background information was a reason not to publish. According to editor-in-chief Christiaan Ruesink: “Paper is different from online. More contemplative, it needs more context.” However, when the images became so widespread, Ruesink felt he needed to apologize to his readers. And the newspaper decided to print the pictures after all.
(46) See a report on how the issue was debated at The Guardian: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/07/guardiandecision-to-publish-shocking-photos-of-aylan-kurdi
(47) See Ethics in the News, https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/publications/ethics-in-the-news