Monday, 7 June 2010

Picture This

I read the news every day, partly to generate blog ideas and partly just because I like to keep up. I do buy papers but I tend to promiscuously read all of their websites on weekdays (Buy papers! Jobless journos and failing publications everywhere!) and they are very useful when it comes to getting up-to-the-minute news on current events. In an intriguing and macabre fashion, you could follow the hunt for Cumbria killer Derrick Bird last Wednesday, as the news sites kept a moment to moment account of any police information. Similarly political announcements, such as the first coalition press conference and today's speech on the budget deficit, are reported live online. I'm a bit of a comments freak (as you may be aware, I do read my own ;) and I tend to scroll down, particularly on opinion pieces, to see what people have to say. It's interesting as it provides an insight into a site's readership, general public opinion and the reasons people have for commenting at all. If it's a lighthearted article, the wit of the readers can add to or even surpass it, whereas on serious news stories you get the vitriol or the sympathy of the public and often the debate between them.

Recently, I have started to notice a real distaste for the way some of the more respected papers have published particularly grim stories on their websites. Not the words chosen, though - the pictures. Last week, the breaking news of shootings in Cumbria was accompanied by a picture of a concerned policeman radioing information while a blanket-covered body lay just visible in the background, behind crime scene tape. Immediately the comments began, demanding to know why Sky News were putting up a picture of a victim. It was distasteful, heartless and tacky, they cried. People seemed more distressed by the pictures than the unfolding events. People seemed to be saying they had opened a news page only to read and imagine the information, and that the visual evidence was a step too far.* As far as I remember, there have always been appalling images to accompany alarming news reports, from desperate businessmen jumping from the smouldering twin towers to the footage of teenager Neda Soltani dying in the street after being hit by a bullet during the Iranian protests last year.

Today's sad news that twin baby girls had been mauled by a fox that had managed to get into their house was met with dismay, not only because of the essential tragedy of the story, but due to The Times' leading picture of their mother's face, crumpled with devastation. I do think this picture, like the innocent victim's body, is uncomfortable to look at, but sometimes the world is an uncomfortable place. There were no pictures of the infants' injuries, obviously, and no tabloid-sensationalist description save a few clinical comments on the sites of the wounds (face, arms). The only visual they could go for was presumably a shot of the family house, the hospital they are being treated at, or the parents. As the story centred around the mother's comment on her daughters' condition and the incident itself, I don't think this was an invasion of her private grief - just a shocking image to summarise a shocking story. She obviously felt ready to express her worry and sadness to the press, and I find it hard to see how a visual confirmation of her quoted statement could offend. Perhaps I am oddly resilient; I didn't feel disgusted at Sky's use of the Cumbria photo - which was also used on either the Guardian or Times website, it's near impossible to find archived 'breaking news' - as I felt it summed up the serious nature of the case and was probably one of the first or only images from the scene. What were they supposed to have, a Sun-style 'this is what a gun looks like, folks' illustration? I remember first learning the word propaganda in high school history, and spending hours analysing the choice of pictures in home and foreign press in the past. A picture can hit you with the story much faster than the text, and it is an important part of the story in my opinion, far more than being simply decorative.

I would be interested to hear if you think a certain level of unpleasant image should be left out of the news. Maybe some people read the 'highbrow' publications to hear only very brisk, factual accounts of current affairs, and avoid the emotive nature of tabloid fare. Even if this were so, I fail to see what could be more factual and straight from the source than a photograph. What of the war, genocide, violence and natural disaster that happen all over the world? Maybe we wouldn't feel the full weight of the story or attempt to help in some way without being faced with the grim pictoral evidence. When I was working at a tabloid around the time of the Haiti earthquake, they filled a two-page spread with the image of a child's body being thrown on a pile of corpses as locals attempted to to clear the streets, along with a moving first-hand report of the devastation. This is probably one of the more horrific photos I've seen used, but I bet it stopped a few fatcats from wealthier countries in their tracks. When people die from drug abuse or drink driving, relatives sometimes have the strength to give a photo of their dying or dead loved one to the papers in the hope that it might make people think twice and prevent more needless deaths. I don't believe it's a sick voyeurism that puts these images online and in print, but the media's basic function as a transmitter of information. We are very lucky to have an uncensored press, and I for one don't think the desire of a few people to bury their heads in the sand during dark times is reason enough to remove the important aspect of photography from our news.

*Incidentally, if I search the original news stories I cannot find the image I am referring to - perhaps the voice of the people won in this case? There is a similar shot on the NY Daily News site as the of the shockwaves of the shootings continue to be reported.


  1. I'd like the truth, in print and photo. A bombed house, shot soldier or brutalised civilian shows us why war needs to be a last resort and is not some gung-ho faraway adventure. Cumbria gun victims or the aftermath of a drunk driver mauling a crowd starkly remind us why the stories are important (it's no wonder animal rescue charities make so much money with their visual campaigning?). There are times when the shock treatment is used to make media companies money and there can be a moment of "oh, we didn't have to see that" but at the end of the day if it makes us sit up and take notice of important events and what they mean it is on balance for the good. Given the move towards "citizen journalism" on the Net we're not going to stop this trend anyway.

  2. I agree I like following the online news reports as you just get everything so much faster - as for pictures your example of Haiti is a good one as I'm sure it did shock people and show them what was actually happening. But thinking of the sky news picture, imagine family or friends of the poor victim seeing that picture or hearing that it had been published? If that was your family I really think you'd be devestated. It's a thin line I guess between gratuitous and necessary shock.

  3. Interesting debate.. The question I always ask myself is: why is it ok (acceptable I mean) to show victims of earthquakes, famine, floods, violence and destruction in all of their bare and bloodied death (eg. Haiti as a recent example) yet it's not ok or acceptable to show a similarly visible and identifiable body of British (or European, American even) victims. Sure, the scale of tragedy is larger, but aren't those people allowed dignity in death either?

  4. Just to follow on from my comment above, I am not sure your above comparison between Haiti and victims of drug abuse is a valid one, for surely the difference between the two is the sense of agency that those drug-death parents have. I am sure that no-one in Haiti was asked if it was ok to take a photos of dead Haitian children and beam them around the globe?

  5. Personally I don't mind seeing the images, recent images I have found upsetting are of birds stuck in the oil leaks, knowing the bird is basically drowning and the camera man would rather video it than try help disturbed me.

    I think it is important that the press are not intrusive, I think sometimes they can be insensitive. It's getting the right balance between showing us the truth and respecting the people involved in the story. What happens if that dead body could be identified by the shoes or something and the family saw it in the paper?

    So in conclusion, I am quite happy to see these pictures, but what concerns me is the people/animals involved in the pictures and how sensitive and helpful it is to them.

  6. The images may sometimes be uncomfortable, but as you put it, we live in an uncomfortable world. I Agree with this, and, I also would go as far as to say that to censor the news and be selective over what the audience see is unhealthy. Wrapping the Western world in cotton wool only serves to further the distance between cultures, you only have to view media from the middle east, asia, africa, or anywhere but the UK really to see just how raw real life is. The air-conditioned lifestyle of big business and smart suits is clearly going to be flawed in terms of accepting 'gory' images on the news. But, to counter this, we find it perfectly acceptable to watch films such as 'Saw'.. The real worry, I think, is over the apparent lack of moral concern regarding the production of these kind of films - surely the consuming public has been desensitised to violence from all these 'Hollywood horrors?'?

    Can you perhaps offer your opinion on this Miss Write?

    "It is OK because it is not real" versus "I do not want to see it because it is real"

    I apologise for my lack of comments recently, been rather busy. Glad to see you are still turning out the good stuff :)