Abu Ghraib, the man who jumped from the Twin Towers, children running from Napalm during the Vietnam War – all now iconic images that provided shocking glimpses into events unfolding around the world when they were published, and, many years later, continue to provide context on critical moments in history. Journalists often face the difficult decision of whether to include these harsh depictions of the news they report, balancing their obligation to inform the public, yet still respect the sensitivities of their audience.
This important debate reappeared last week as the world’s attention turned to a beach along Turkey, where the heartbreaking image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi provided an all-too human representation of the 380,000 migrants and refugees fleeing war and conflict for Europe. The photograph went viral and media outlets published the image alongside coverage of a story that quickly came to dominate international headlines. Twitter soon saw an outpouring of compassion for the boy and so many children like him as artists recreated the image to include angel’s wings, mourning sea-animals, and renditions of what should have been a cheerful childhood.
Understandably, several media outlets received criticism from many who perceived the image as too jarring for viewers and disrespectful to the boy and his family. The use photos such as this are often major points of contention in human rights reporting. Critics contend that images of death and tragedy serve only to capture an audience’s short attention span, without properly informing them about the issues involved. Repeated exposure to these images has the potential to cause compassion fatigue, which many argue desensitizes us to tragedy and normalizes catastrophe, thus perpetuating further use of exponentially disturbing photos in an attempt to shock an audience into attention.
Despite the risks of offending viewers – or worse, not affecting them at all – powerful images convey an intimate personification of issues that can catalyze a widespread call to action. After weathering criticism for running photos of Aylan Kurdi last week, Germany’s best-selling newspaper ran an online and print edition without any photos to accompany its text. “Without photos, many crimes would not only remain unpunished – they would not even be remembered,” wrote the paper’s editor-in-chief. “Photos are the outcry of the world.”
In the past week, many of the world’s leaders heard that outcry as they developed plans to aid the growing numbers of people displaced by conflict. The European Union proposed that 160,000 migrants and refugees should be welcomed throughout its member nations. President Obama announced that the United States would help 10,000 Syrian refugees resettle over the next year.
Although news cycles come and go, their images – for better or worse – can last forever. This is a power that journalists do not take lightly, and neither should we as consumers of media.