Earlier this week, a dozen Syrian refugees drowned off the coast of Turkey while attempting to flee to Greece. Among the dead was young Aylan Kurdi, who became the subject of a series of harrowing news photographs that illustrated the sad and monstrous toll that the Syrian conflict has taken.
The most explicit image, seen above, is one of the rare news photographs with the potential to grab the public’s attention in ways that reporting never could, and perhaps inspire readers to think about what is happening in Syria and why. You might not know much about Syria, and viewing this photograph, taken by Nilufer Demir, a photographer from Turkey’s Dogan News Agency, isn’t going to make you understand what’s happening there. But it might force you to confront the fact that you haven’t been paying attention—make you justify your indifference, and in doing so raise your awareness by at least a little bit.
But many news organizations, Slate included, decided to turn away. Faced with the opportunity to publish an instantly iconic photograph that was disturbing in all the right ways, many outlets instead illustrated their stories with a less-graphic option, often an image of a soldier carrying the dead boy in his arms. Slate ran the latter photograph Wednesday, atop a story by Josh Keating about international refugee policies and the Syrian crisis. “I felt, obviously, that the less gruesome image was the way to go on this piece given that it was not directly about the photograph,” said Slate deputy editor John Swansburg. “Slate, like many major news organizations, is circumspect about publishing images of dead bodies, dead children, gruesome images that we think might disturb our readers,” Swansburg told me. “It’s not that we don’t do it, but that we don’t do it lightly.”
Slate and Swansburg are not alone in this circumspection. As the New York Times wrote in a story about how newsrooms dealt with the decision whether to publish the picture, “many editors were concerned about shocking their readers and wanted to avoid the appearance of trafficking in sensational images for profit.” And yet readers know what death looks like, as well as pain, sickness, and desperation. They know these things because they are adults. And all adults know that the world can be a cruel place, and that horrific things happen every minute of every day. You are not like the wealthy dowager in a Marx Brothers movie, ready to faint at any unpleasant shock to the system. Why, then, do so many in the media persist in pretending otherwise?
Unpleasant things are shocking when they appear suddenly, without warning, context, or explanation—and this point gets at the line about “trafficking in sensational images for profit.” There is a qualitative difference between publishing explicit images in order to titillate—as some tabloids do so well—and doing so in order to illustrate some broader point. And the point illustrated by the photograph of a dead toddler—the most devastating one available—is that the situation in Syria is a horror show, and that, as a human being, you ought to know about it. The image is resonant and journalistically relevant because it illustrates the human toll of an ongoing humanitarian crisis that persists, in part, because the world pays it very little attention.
Speaking to the New York Times, the foreign editor of Vox justified his decision not to run the photograph by speculating that its virality was “less about compassion than voyeurism.” But journalism is inherently voyeuristic. Journalism is the act of uncovering stories that would otherwise remain private and showing them to the world. The best journalism combines compassion and voyeurism. It exposes hidden truths and then convinces people to face them. The media's tendency to sanitize and censor unpleasant images can serve to camouflage—and to an extent sanction—the unpleasant acts and policies that produce them.
As I’m sure you noticed, the photograph that Slate chose not to publish Wednesday is sitting at the top of this story right now. Why the change of heart? “To my mind it's not a contradiction. Your article is a very different article than Josh’s was, and your argument, as I understand it, is that the most difficult-to-view photo is the one that’s imperative for news organizations to run,” Swansburg told me. “It seems a little silly to be coy about it at this point. … It’s been almost unavoidable in the 24 hours since yesterday, and it doesn’t strike me that I’d be protecting readers from anything by not running it at this point.”
I can accept Swansburg’s logic—Keating’s article and mine are two very different pieces, after all—but I also think that if you’re an editor who has the opportunity to run a heartbreaking and newsworthy photograph, you should probably run that photograph instead of some other, lesser photograph. But running the photograph alone isn’t enough. Publishing a graphic image of a dead child without also giving your readers the tools they need to follow and understand the broader story might be worse than not publishing it at all. The drowned-boy image is sad, and depressing, but it’s only shocking if you don’t understand where it comes from. During the past several years of warfare and flight, more than 200,000 Syrians have died, and many have died horrible deaths. They’ve died in bombings. They’ve died in chemical weapons attacks. They’ve died attempting to flee their country, and their bodies have been found in trucks, in the snow, and on beaches. You have seen images of almost none of them. That’s a mistake.
Also in Slate, see the latest photographs from the European refugee crisis.