Let Them Rest in Peace: Photos of Dead Children in the News Media

by bokchoyfork on April 21, 2017 - 4:49pm

In September of 2015, a photograph was taken of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore, having drowned when attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The news media took this saying quite literally and circulated the picture across all possible outlets, and the image of the dead child sparked outrage at the migrant crisis that had intensified at the beginning of the year. The image was likened to that of the Napalm Girl, a Pulitzer-prize-winning photograph showing a young girl burned by napalm by American troops in Vietnam. While it is important for the news media to publish images of war zones and conflict to deliver truth and education to the public, using children in such images remains unethical.

            The argument against censoring images of dead children centers around the need to cover a news story in its entirety without withholding pictures that could be considered sensitive. Moreover, many news sources used the image as a way to humanize the crisis and bring awareness to the crisis that had been covered but not fully addressed. While some sources, like the CBC, used warnings of graphic imagery to give agency to their readers, many newspapers across the world published their image on the front page for full effect (Laurent). All moral frameworks seen in class can offer some kind of defense for publishing the picture. Deontology, for one, would condemn withholding information from the public and not providing the full story. Teleology would argue that shocking pictures bring awareness about conflicts that can be stopped to the benefit of the greater good. Finally, virtue ethics could consider that the news media is acting in a virtuous way by displaying honesty and bravery for showing a controversial image.

            However, these arguments are not convincing enough to justify the distribution of a photograph of a dead child and are most well countered by analyzing the situation’s outcomes. As previously discussed, the desired outcome was to bring awareness to the crisis, but the consequences were very different. The BBC reported that one year after the picture went viral, the crisis was worsening and no real change had occurred; “a number of southern and eastern European nations actually closed their borders to Syrians that year” (Devichand). The fast propagation of the picture simply contributed to the “slacktivism” epidemic on social media, which has been found to have demobilizing effects by creating the belief that low-commitment acts make substantial contributions to a cause (Schumann and Klein, p. 11). Brendan O’Neill of The Spectator calls this “moral pornography”, as it elicits a “self-satisfied feeling of sadness among Western observers”. He argues that it is blatantly disrespectful to the family members left behind who were not truly consulted and will have to deal with the anxiety caused by seeing the picture everywhere (O’Neill).

            Another negative outcome of publishing graphic images of children’s deaths is the possibility of rash decisions made when an individual is very emotional. A study examining photographs of children displaced in Darfur, Sudan, states that “children are the representation of innocence” and their “corporeal image are valued over others in time of conflict”, making their appearance in photographic news even more touching (Ali, James & Vultee, 21). Traumatic pictures have more effect when readers can make personal connections with the victims, so in this case everyone who has young children in their close circle of family and friends will be able to relate to the picture of Alan Kurdi or any other dead child. The pictures of dead and injured children after a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun in Syria on April 4th were said to have a deeply troubling effect on President Trump, who proceeded to launch an airstrike in the country (Coll). This indicates a complete reversal in his policies, which were not previously critical of the Assad government and condemned airstrikes against him during the Obama administration. The amplified emotional response to images of children undermines readers’ rationality and can lead to such rash outcomes. In this way, images of children clearly have an exceptional effect which differs from other violent images, and could cause unethical consequences when improperly framed.

            Finally, the photo of Alan Kurdi plays into a pattern of news sources publishing pictures of dead children of colour. Indeed, it appears that Western media outlets are much more reluctant to publish pictures of dead white children, for instance after the attack on Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Publishing such pictures is considered an affront to the healing of the families of the victims and an overall unethical act because it contributes to voyeurism and profits off their suffering. Westerners feel the need to protect “their children” from the public eye, especially after traumatic event, but do not feel the same need regarding foreign children that can be used to promote a political agenda. In this way, there is a racial double standard when it comes to pictures of dead children, shown by news reports and social media platforms constantly circulating pictures of dead children in Gaza and in Syria (Moore). The relentless objectification of their bodies, as they are rarely given names, has the added outcome of inciting future violence against non-white individuals. Therefore, the argument that these pictures must be disseminated to offer full coverage of a news story and raise awareness cannot be defended if it does not apply to children of all races and backgrounds. Thus, until Western media outlets can justify publishing pictures of dead white children, they cannot do so for other dead children around the world.

            To conclude, it is crucial to analyse children’s imagery differently from that of adults, because they convey a heightened emotional significance which more strongly affects rationality. It is imperative to think critically about the response to shocking news photography and make sure that it is thoughtful and not just emotional. The distribution of pictures of dead children only contributes to creating false perceptions of good outcomes, dangerous reactions from world leaders, and increased disparity between the rights given to white versus non-white corpses.



Works Cited

Ali, Sadaf Rashad, et al. “Strike a Pose: Comparing Associated Press and UNICEF Visual Representations of the Children of Darfur.” African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1–26., <www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/africonfpeacrevi.3.1.1.>

Coll, Steve. "Trump's Confusing Strike On Syria." The New Yorker. N.p., 17 Apr. 2017. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/17/trumps-confusing-strike-on-....

Devichand, Mukul. "Did Alan Kurdi's Death Change Anything?" BBC. N.p., 2 Sept. 2016. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-37257869>.

Laurent, Olivier. "What the Image of Aylan Kurdi Says About the Power of Photography." Time. N.p., 04 Sept. 2015. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://time.com/4022765/aylan-kurdi-photo/>.

Moore, Suzanne. "Sharing pictures of corpses on social media isn’t the way to bring a ceasefire." The Guardian. N.p., 21 July 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/21/sharing-pictures-c....

O'Neill, Brendan. "Sharing a photo of a dead Syrian child isn’t compassionate, it’s narcissistic." The Spectator. N.p., 3 Sept. 2015. Web. 21 Apr. 2017. <https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/09/sharing-a-photo-of-the-dead-syrian....

Schumann, Sandy and Olivier Klein. "Substitute or Stepping Stone? Assessing the Impact of Low-Threshold Online Collective Actions on Offline Participation." European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 45, no. 3, Apr. 2015, pp. 308-322. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/ejsp.2084.



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