A few years ago I did a journalism training course with a news agency. During the week-long course, we covered the ethics of what should be reported and how. One aspect of this was around pictures of disasters which involved human tragedy and the example they used was the 2004 Madrid train bombing which claimed the lives of 191 people, wounding 1800 others.
The trainers started by asking us what kind of pictures we’d be happy to see over the breakfast table and most of us looked at each other and shrugged, having not given it any particular thought until then. So they showed us a picture of some wreckage which we all agreed wasn’t too bad and we could still eat our toast if we saw it.
Another picture came up on the screen, showing some wreckage and what looked like scattered luggage and personal belongings. Again, we agreed it was more or less OK.
The next picture had a shape crumpled next to the bent tracks which was hard to make out, but we were silent, looking at each other uncertainly.
The final picture showed dead bodies, their clothes blown off in the explosion, some dismembered, some face down, a jumble of hands, shoes and cloth. No-one spoke. I’ve never forgotten it.
Today, MH17, a Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has allegedly been shot down over Ukraine, presumably and tragically killing everyone on board. No-one knows what happened yet so I’m going to refrain from speculation. But the news agency I did my course with has tweeted pictures in which dead bodies are clearly visible. The BBC broadcast pictures from Russian TV where a woman’s passport was open at the photo page. Another news outlet asked questions clearly designed to find out if there were any British passengers on board.
Has the world changed so much in the last few years that sensitivity, decency and consideration for both the victims and their families – many of who won’t have even been officially told about the crash yet – have been sacrificed in favour of social media stats? An hour after the news agency pictures went up, people were still complaining directly to them on Twitter, yet they remain visible.
Arguably, stuff that can happen in real life is brutal, news agencies exist and have a duty to inform us about the terrible things that go on in the world. And some of them do a fantastic job of it. But tweeting pictures of scorched dead bodies scant hours after the crash demeans news reporting. Broadcasting the passport picture of someone whose family probably doesn’t even know she’s dead demeans news reporting. Questions designed to find out if any British people were on board as if they’re more important than Chinese passengers demeans news reporting. It’s a cynical disregard for anything but page views, which shouldn’t be what news is about.
My condolences are with the passengers of MH17 and their families.
Update: The Guardian had an interesting article about the same subject and raises good questions about the right of picture editors to effectively censor news photography.