I teach courses in media ethics and visual culture. While I was not shocked to see the picture that the Cambridge Times choose to publish on the front page for reasons that I will explain, I thought it was necessary to respond to the reasons the editor used to justify his choice.
The editor argued that he choose to publish the image for reasons of public interest. Here, the community newspaper chooses for us, its readership, what they thought would be beneficial for us, much like a parent telling a child to eat leek soup because “it is good for you.” Such a stance may assume that the public is a passive mind that can be injected with what is “good” for it. The publication of the photograph is yet another case of sensationalism masquerading as objectivity. From its beginnings in the 1800’s the photographic medium was thought to provide an objective and scientific eye on events. Yet, it is clear that the photograph is as subjective as a painting insofar as its subject matter is chosen for maximum impact.
I fail to see what interest was being served by publishing an image that showed a person lying dead on the 401 draped in a sheet. Of course, journalists would say, “we are just upholding the truth, presenting the facts and engaging in objectivity. Most of us know what an accident looks like and therefore, it is not necessary to etch such images in our minds.
There is a tasteful, ethical and reasonable way of being objective without causing further harm to the family and relatives of the deceased. As most theorists of media are aware, images are chosen for their shock value. Unfortunately, most news today operates under the slogans, ‘If it bleeds, it leads and “If it shocks, it rocks.” Shock serves the value of emotion. It does not serve the value of truth or compassion.
What was exactly advocated by the publication of the image that the editor choose to put on the front page? What is the moral right of the subject in the photograph? Did the publication of the photograph somehow advocate for the tragedy of the situation. Did it serve to remind the public that highways can be dangerous places, as if we did not know that already? Did it seek to inform the public that traffic was at a stand still for three hours?
It seems that being stuck in traffic while annoying pales in comparison to the accident that lead to the traffic congestion. In fact, there is no comparison. Those who were stuck in traffic went home while one person did not.
Media practioners operate under the perspective that their images are somehow objective even while they are framed by the subjective mind and finger that snaps the picture. Here the interest of what is photographed is always sacrificed for some higher ideal like a Pulitzer Prize for example.
Here I am thinking of the famous photograph taken by Kevin Carter for which he received the Pulitzer in 1994. Readers may recall the photograph: a child inAfricadying of malnutrition while a vulture looms in the background. The photographer in the service of “objectivity” snapped the picture and then left. He did nothing to help the dying child. He would later commit suicide for reasons that were apparent.
No, I do not agree with the editor’s explanation. Those of us, like myself, who have witnessed death and destruction on a massive scale, know that gruesome images on the front pages of newspapers speak volumes about cultural practices that are rarely questioned. It is as if photographers believe the public will be as silent as the photographs they take.
The link between the photographic image and objective reporting first put forth in 1839 by Daguerre does not hold. Sometimes, what is caught in the visual web of our image making technology need not be splashed on the front page for reasons that are ethical and reasonable.