Aversion is no reason to censor


Headline: Ohio police post graphic photo of overdosed parents in SUV with four-year-old child in backseat

This story first broke out on September 9. For those of you who haven’t heard, two parents allegedly overdosed on heroin with their child in the backseat. Both James Acord (47) and Rhonda Pasek (50) were slapped with a slew of charges after being released from the hospital.

What truly makes this news disturbing, though, is the decision to include photos from the incident in news reports. Several photos provided by Ohio police show the couple slouched over in their seats with their child in the back. Acord, pale and open-mouthed, lays back in the driver’s seat. Beside him, Pasek lays slumped over, nearly in the driver’s seat and completely unconscious. According to the Daily Mail, “Officials say they decided to make the photos of the unconscious man and woman public to raise awareness of the heroin epidemic in the state.”

The media has been doing this for years. For most—if not all—journalists, reporting gruesome details is synonymous with reporting in general. All details are important in order to keep the public informed.

Given that this September 11 marked the 15-year anniversary, let’s take 9/11 for example. When the first plane struck, journalists didn’t know what to do with themselves. Helicopters flew around the scene while reporters scrambled to think of something to say. Then the second plane hit. Naturally, everyone watching was terrified.

But it’s here where news sources seemed to take a turn for the worse.

Those trapped in the upper levels of the buildings started succumbing to their last resort. They began to jump. It saddens me deeply to think back to just how many people had no other option. What disturbs me most, though, is having the image fresh in my mind 15 years later, because of just how many news outlets filmed or photographed it.

Take the Falling Man for example. This photo was captured by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, and features a man jumping headfirst from one of the buildings. That photo made headlines, of course, but at what cost?

News outlets anywhere who ran that photo or others like it were met with criticism from the public. A 2009 Esquire article by Tom Junod is quoted as saying, “In most American Newspapers, the photograph that Richard Drew took of the Falling Man ran once and never again. Papers all over the country, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to The Denver Post, were forced to defend themselves against charges that they exploited a man’s death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography.” Do I blame those who spoke out against these photos? Absolutely not. How could I? With graphic imagery being shoved in our faces on a daily basis, people have a right to be outraged.

Though a case can be made saying that these photos capture history. Take Phan Thi Kim Phúc, perhaps better known to some as “napalm girl”. The photo, taken in 1972 by Associated Press, captured a group of crying children running from a napalm attack, with Kim Phúc being in the centre. She’s screaming and naked and the photo went down in history. Recently, Facebook tried to remove the photo, only to reverse their decision on the grounds of realizing “the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time.” So, what makes that photo different from Drew’s?

Just last year, a photo of three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on shore was presented to the world. Last month, five-year-old Omran Daqneesh was filmed in the back of an ambulance after being pulled from a building hit by an airstrike. A still from the video was published, showing the little boy covered in blood and dirt.

According to The Guardian, after Kurdi’s photo surfaced, “tens of thousands of people across the country were signing petitions, donating to NGOs, preparing to drive truckloads of supplies to Calais or volunteering to take asylum-seekers into their homes.” However, Abdullah Kurdi, Alan’s father, stated to The Telegraph, “Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now? People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it.”

So did these photos serve an additional purpose? It really all depends on who you ask.

Another huge part of photojournalism and printed journalism is exposing the world to the horrors of these events. It’s unreasonable to ask for the news and then become upset when something graphic is shown. This is what’s happening in the world and it’s important to be informed. Journalists shouldn’t be placed under the gun simply for showing the world what they clearly weren’t prepared to see.

Admittedly, I think my biggest issue with what is being shown in the news is my inability to stomach it, which is no excuse for censorship. I don’t want to see two parents passed out from a drug overdose. I can’t handle watching a man jump to his death when he was guaranteed it regardless.

When it comes to the media, I’ve grown accustomed to just how often violence is shown. Being a journalist, I also understand that there really isn’t time to censor everything before it gets published. This is especially true if someone is covering a live event. It’s news. It’s happening now. Journalists are doing their job.

The point isn’t to get people to agree with what’s being covered. It’s meant to keep you informed. Stunned by the news? Good. Now act. Even if you don’t act, at least you’re more aware of what’s happening. The news is meant to tell you what’s going on in the world, regardless of whether you’re ready or willing. From what I can see, that’s exactly what it’s doing.