Too Graphic?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 2010

Too Graphic?   

American newspapers, often squeamish when it comes to running disturbing images, overcame their inhibitions after the Haitian earthquake. Journalists say powerful, graphic photographs made clear the depth of the tragedy and fostered support for rebuilding the devastated island nation. But to some, the deluge of images of naked corpses and severed body parts was insensitive and dehumanizing.

By Arielle Emmett
     


One by one the photos trickled in; then they came in torrents. On a piece of cardboard draped over a makeshift stretcher, the corpse of a Haitian man lay caked in dust like a powdered doll, a woman's dark legs in capri pants striding past him. In another image, a young man was digging his way out of a collapsed school building after the quake. As he picked his way through the rubble with hand tools, trying to rescue a teacher trapped inside, he looked up at the camera, seemingly unaware that he was flanked by a schoolgirl kneeling lifeless at her desk, her head and neck pinned by blocks of collapsed concrete.

The photos displayed by dozens of U.S. newspapers and Web sites showed tiny Haitian orphans crawling and playing in tent cities. There were hundreds and then thousands of photos of dazed, poorly bandaged victims; of nude or partially nude bodies falling out of pushcarts; of men in surgical masks dragging by legs and arms the bloated dead to parking lot morgues. The cinderblock houses and government palaces had been leveled by a seismic blast; there were images of body parts and screaming people, collapsed grocery stores and looters shot in the act.

It was hell, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, killing an estimated 230,000 people, leaving perhaps 3 million injured or homeless.

American news photographers with digital cameras and satellite phones rushed to the scene. This was not like Afghanistan or Iraq, with countless rules of embedding and the continual threats of bullets and roadside bombs. And editors generally loath to publish graphic and disturbing images saw justification for doing so in the case of the catastrophe in Haiti. This time, photographers and videographers went all out, loading their digital cameras with as much grief, hope and horror as they could bear.

"One of the reasons the pictures were more graphic in Haiti was that the Haitian people wanted the journalists to photograph the dead bodies and tell their stories. They wanted the world to see, to know how horrible it was," says Michele McNally, assistant managing editor for photography at the New York Times, which initially sent five photographers, including Pulitzer Prize-winner Damon Winter, to cover the disaster.

But Valérie Payen-Jean Baptiste, a Haitian elementary school principal who lost every possession, her home and school, and nearly her family in the quake, was sickened by the images. "I'm tired of it; the photos are too much," she says. "I know that [news outlets] took pictures, and that enabled people to raise money. But what I see is that people in Haiti are really upset. Some view the photos as an insult, a disaster, since we have already suffered so much."

"I'm not criticizing journalists [who] talk about the facts of the earthquake," she wrote in a follow-up e-mail. "But my critique is about the tone of unnecessary pictures and videos that show pieces of bodies, dying people, the nudity of people, or the misery/tragedy of people in line for food and water. Seriously, is this cruelty really necessary to mobilize massive humanitarian action?"

Photojournalists and their editors thought publishing the photos was an essential aspect of covering the news. "At the Herald, and at most publications, I suspect, we try to strike a balance, delivering not only what readers want to see but also what they need to see. We must act with sensitivity but, more importantly, our mission is to create a complete and accurate visual report. In this story in particular, images of death were inescapable. Death was everywhere," says David Walters, the Miami Herald's deputy editor-photos and video. He says the more graphic images made up "only a small portion of what we publish."

Walters works with Patrick Farrell, who won a Pulitzer for his stunningly poignant black-and-white images of the Haitian survivors of Hurricane Ike and other storms in 2008. Farrell once again was dispatched to Port-au-Prince right after the earthquake to document fresh heartache. "I thought [the quake] was the worst thing I'd ever seen. I was thinking if it gets worse than this, it's the end of the world," he says. "You can't tune it out; until you're looking at your pictures on the computer, you're thinking this is a movie, it isn't real."

And he adds emphatically, the Haitian photographs are essential. "I'd say there were not enough images of Haiti; I would say you can never have enough," Farrell says. "People need to know that the suffering continues; they're suffering just living a normal life. They get slammed with four storms, and now this. It's cruel and unlucky."

From the Miami Herald to the Palm Beach Post, the Birmingham News to the San Jose Mercury News, the Los Angeles Times to the Lincoln Journal Star, the New York Times and more, the verdict was the same. Unvarnished stories and images of Haiti's horrific loss and the rare, miraculous rescue of victims dominated A sections and front page real estate for several days--in some cases, a week to 10 days and more. Many journalistic boundaries were crossed on television. CNN's Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, was photographed performing brain surgery on an injured Haitian girl; Anderson Cooper of the same network interrupted his on-the-scene newscast to sweep up a boy in the midst of a violent looting incident. Other newscasters were filmed giving water to the trapped and weeping.

The more images of unimaginable suffering were published, the more international aid poured in.

Photo coverage of the quake touched off an intense debate about the role of the explicit photo--the iconic, bloody shot--in a media world of surprisingly delicate sensibilities. Did news outlets publish images that were too graphic, and too many of them? And what of stark depictions of other disasters, natural or man-made? Or U.S. military casualties? What about victims of terrorism or crimes of passion? Should all of them get the same treatment?

Readers and newspaper ombudsmen in January engaged in spirited exchanges about whether the media had gone too far. And if the public was surprised by the tone and volume of the photography, that shouldn't come as a shock. Because in recent years, for a variety of reasons, powerful, iconic images of national and international events have been harder to find in many American newspapers.

Many dailies have taken a hyperlocal approach to news coverage. News managers say that rather than publish national and international news that is widely available on the Internet, news organizations should heavily emphasize material that they are best suited to dominate: local news. Generally, newspapers with heavily local orientations avoid large-format foreign news photos and packages on their front pages and inside their A sections.

Another factor: Editors, troubled by sinking circulations, are wary of alienating their remaining readers by publishing images they may find troubling. In particular, many news outlets are reluctant to spotlight photos of dead or wounded U.S. troops or foreign civilian casualties.

Yet that doesn't mean compelling photography isn't widely available. News organizations publish powerful photographs by professional photojournalists and citizen journalists alike on their Web sites. The computer is considered a more private viewing arena than the newspaper. Online images may be edgier and more graphic than what appears in print, and they are viewed by millions of people who flock to photo galleries and slide shows.

"The Internet has become the saving grace of photojournalism," says Donald Winslow, editor of News Photographer magazine, a monthly publication of the National Press Photographers Association. "What you see in the daily newspaper today is the lowest common denominator of what a photographer is willing to print."

Tim Rasmussen, assistant managing editor for photography at the Denver Post, says the unlimited space online has greatly deepened photojournalism's ability to tell the story. "We put far more compelling, important news photos for the U.S. and the world on our Web site now than we ever put in the newspaper," he says. "We've built a good online audience for our photography with high-end photo blogs and galleries... There is more emphasis online on national and international news than in the newspaper."

Despite the abundance of material on the Web, the timidity of many news organizations is a source of concern for some journalists. "The truth is that there is a lot of visual censorship that goes on," Washington Post picture editor Bonnie Jo Mount was quoted as saying in a column by Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander. "We're in a culture that censors visuals very heavily. I think that sometimes works to our detriment because we don't run visuals that people need to see."

Haiti, though, was an exception. The country's rich culture and frequent natural disasters have spurred graphic coverage before--particularly photos of naked children who had been killed during the tropical storms of 2008. "In the past I've objected to this graphic coverage, particularly in regards to children," says Leonie Hermantin, a deputy director of Lambi Fund of Haiti, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on Haiti's economic development. "But the earthquake was of such apocalyptic, horrible dimensions that, in this case, it's OK to show what those who remain alive have to deal with. This is what children are seeing on a daily basis. The images afford an opportunity to be there vicariously, and at that level I do not object."

But, she adds, some images did go too far and showed no respect for the dead. "There has always been a sense among photographers that everything goes in Haiti," she says. "You can take whatever shot you want, because the people are poor and the government never reacts with outrage when these images are displayed." Hermantin does not fault the photojournalists, though. The news and photo editors who decide what gets published "should think they are not dealing with animals, but with people who care very much about dying with dignity. People from Haiti want to be buried clothed."

Hermantin and Farrell agree that Haiti's nightmare was beyond anyone's imagining. "You could write a million times that there are 100,000 people dead in the streets," Farrell says. "But if you don't see it for yourself, or in pictures, you won't believe it. It just won't register."

But it did register. It registered with billions, and for some the light it cast on the country and its multiple catastrophes was unnatural. Payen-Jean Baptiste, the Haitian elementary school principal who was trapped with her husband and two small daughters in a car during the earthquake, says she and her extended family needed no more graphic reminders of falling buildings or crushed bodies. "We lived through it," she says. "I have nightmares, and I am fighting these images. I just can't imagine what this is like for my two little girls, who are also dealing with nightmares. Two or three days after the quake, my four-year-old fell down because she was running, and she started crying nervously, thinking that she will die. So I can't understand the purpose of publishing such pictures or watching such horrifying things on TV for entertainment."

Payen-Jean Baptiste doubts that media coverage of the disaster will provide any more than a temporary Band-Aid. "As for helping Haiti," she says, "Haiti has been 'helped' by nations for 25 years... The country is becoming poorer and poorer all the time. Thanks to the media, who will be motivated to go to Haiti in the next decade after seeing how 'ugly,' 'poor' or 'insecure' it can be?"

Many American news consumers wondered the same thing. Christa Robbins of Chicago wrote a letter to the New York Times protesting the graphic images of corpses and destruction published by the paper. The letter was quoted in a column by Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt. Robbins wrote, "I feel that the people who have suffered the most are being spectacularized by your blood-and-gore photographs, which do not at all inform me of the relief efforts, the political stability of the region or the extent of damage to families or infrastructure."

Robbins and other readers suggested that Haiti was considered fair game because it was other – black, poor and foreign. "If this had happened in California, I cannot imagine a similar depiction of half-clothed bodies splayed out for the camera," Robbins wrote. "What are you thinking?" A Washington Post reader wrote to Ombudsman Alexander: "I wonder if the editors of the Washington Post would run pictures of charred smoldering bodies or of a young girl crushed to death if those bodies had been of a 12-year-old girl from Chevy Chase or a 45-year-old father of three from Cleveland Park," referring to two largely white, well-off local communities.

At the same time, some readers defended the use of graphic images. One of them, Mary Louise Thomas of Palatka, Florida, wrote to Hoyt that a photo of a dead baby lying on her dead mother impelled her to cry for an hour. "But run from it? Never," Hoyt quoting her as saying. She added that those repelled by such images "should really try staring truth in the face occasionally and try to understand it."

While Alexander and Hoyt defended their papers' Haitian imagery, arguing it underscored the gravity and urgency of the situation, both also acknowledged that there are multiple standards for choosing photographs. One standard – proximity to readership – prevents most newspapers from publishing pictures of dead bodies with local stories because of the "likelihood that readers may be connected to the deceased," Alexander wrote.

The sheer magnitude of a disaster also influences editors' willingness to publish images of pain, according to Hoyt. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, "The Times ran a dramatic front-page photo of a woman overcome with grief amid rows of dead children, including her own," he wrote. Though some readers protested, Hoyt continued, "the newspaper's first public editor, Daniel Okrent, concluded the paper was right to publish the picture. It told the story of the tsunami, he said."

National newspapers like the Times, however, do not have the same strictures as many local and regional dailies, which readily invoke reader demographics to help winnow out certain disturbing images. "It's weird what offends people, what actually bothers people over breakfast," says Torry Bruno, associate managing editor for photography at the Chicago Tribune. At his newspaper, he says, decisions about graphic photos depend on the circumstances: "In each case, we have long, thoughtful conversations about whether or not publishing is the right thing to do," he says. After the quake, for example, "We published an image of an arm coming out of some rubble with a weeping person behind it," Bruno recalls. It was a decision that Tribune editors felt was warranted, given the depth of the catastrophe.

Haiti aside, there is widespread agreement among those who practice and monitor photojournalism that America's newsrooms have become far more cautious when it comes to choosing photographs. "The kind of enlightened editor I used to have at the Palm Beach Post doesn't exist anymore," says Winslow, the NPPA photojournalist. News editors "today don't want to offend readers, and they don't want to piss people off, and they don't want to take the phone calls [from irate readers] the next day."

Kenny Irby, visual journalism group leader and director of diversity at the Poynter Institute, says the shift in newspaper photojournalism is a byproduct of economic flux. "There is a declining commitment to quality photojournalism today in mainstream media," he says. "But it's not part of a sinister plan. It's the reality of an industry..where print publications are all struggling. Photography is an expensive endeavor; it costs to deploy and support photographers in remote locations."

Another factor: "There is less training and less of the intellectual photo editor thinking about the assignment," says Michel du Cille, the Washington Post's director of photo/multimedia/video. At some, though not all, newspapers, he continues, "the editors are going for the gimmicky photograph over a storytelling photograph. Yes, that's happening around the country, and we are fighting it in the newsroom."

The transformation of American photojournalism didn't happen overnight. "I started to see the change in photo editing after I retired in 1990," says James Atherton, a former Washington Post photographer who took many iconic photographs of U.S. and world leaders, from President Truman to Martin Luther King Jr. to Pope John Paul II to Jimmy Carter. "Newspaper photos are less high quality than they used to be because they're [mostly] feature pictures, not breaking news pictures," he says.

Moreover, Atherton says, the U.S. military has often handcuffed the press by restricting access to citizen casualties in foreign wars in which U.S. troops are involved. An exception: an April 29, 2008, Associated Press photo of the death of a 2-year-old Iraqi child, Ali Hussein, who died in Baghdad during a U.S. bombing raid. The image of a suffocated child appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. Although the photograph was beautifully framed and shot – a potential icon – a survey of U.S. newspapers suggests that Ali Hussein's image was rarely used. The photograph, on the other hand, was commonly distributed and published in foreign media.

"It's taken a long time for us to suddenly realize that when we lose soldiers over there that civilians are dying too," Atherton says. "Civilians should be counted."

But even if news organizations wanted to publish such pictures, it's become increasingly difficult for their journalists to get access to them. During Vietnam, for example, "U.S. photojournalists had virtual carte blanche to photograph whatever they wanted," Winslow says. Journalist Malcolm Browne recorded the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself on fire on a Saigon street in 1963 to protest the corruption in the Diem regime. The image ended up on the front page of the Washington Post.

Photographer Eddie Adams produced the chilling, split-second capture of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a suspected Viet Cong prisoner in 1968. These images, along with Nick Ut's iconic 1972 photo of a young South Vietnamese girl fleeing after a napalm attack, were published and helped change the course of the war.

But the U.S. military altered rules of journalistic access after Vietnam. "The first [Persian] Gulf War had 100 percent photographic censorship; the military kept you on boats," Winslow recalls. "Then the military came up with the idea of 'embedding' in Iraq." Today, journalists who embed with U.S. troops in Afghanistan or Iraq are governed by military regulation limiting where they can go.

U.S. photojournalists went to Haiti to document the enormity of the battered island nation's misery.

For Haitian citizens who wanted their privacy respected, and who seek a long-term international commitment rather than charity, the graphic photography may have a tarnishing effect. "People in Haiti are strong," Payen-Jean Baptiste says. "There are people [here] fighting alone to recover and try to get back on their feet. They are used to dealing with such unfairness. But if there is a way we can stop humiliating them by taking away their dignity while they are suffering, that would be the best help forever we can bring to this nation."

The Miami Herald's Walters sees a broader issue. "Some people, both readers and journalists, find some of the images from Haiti to be gut-wrenching and undignified. These graphic, hard-hitting photos always spawn debate in our newsroom..careful debate. But the fact remains that the devastation in Haiti is gut-wrenching and in many instances, tragic circumstances have stripped away the dignity of victims who were so mercilessly affected by this disaster. That part of the story must be acknowledged in both words and pictures or the story is incomplete."

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