Alternative media tests picture-editing boundaries

MOST people, readers and media professionals alike, subscribe to the more conventional thinking that pictures of dead bodies should not be on front pages. They believe that it is more acceptable if the editor relegates such pictures to an unobstrusive corner of page 33 in the paper. But easy access to alternative media has prompted new questions to conventional picture editing policy. One concern for media organisations now must be this: If readers can see similar images online, will a newspaper be less credible if it chooses to forgo publication? Yet, the larger question that looms for media practitioners is this: Do they feel that such pictures are being used to sensationalise or to boost newspaper sales?

I do not believe The Straits Times is a news organisation that has to resort to this. Neither do I believe that pictures of dead people help with circulation.Generally, geography plays a part. Such traumatic pictures are more acceptable to a particular reading public if the incident happens far away from home.  For instance, graphic photographs of the 2004 tsunami that struck parts of Asia were published by major newspapers in countries unaffected by the disaster. Some readers were offended, but  many more were moved. Many of us may even probably not wish to view it in this way, but such  pictures have and can result in people coming forward to help. What is equally vital is that ethical standards must be applied uniformly, rather than arbitrarily; that a media organisation must have a clear and common rationale and process in deciding on the publication of photographs. The process must include a vital component, which is dialogue or communication with its readers.

In fact, articulating such tough decision-making processes should be made when a picture is published, and not only after readers or other organisations register negative feedback. Doing the latter may appear to look more like damage control, even if the organisation ultimately proves itself justified. Perhaps newspapers can adopt the alerts signalled by movie ratings, that is, publish an advisory to warn readers about graphic content, and at the same time use the opportunity to explain the decisions to use the picture. Ultimately, the decision on whether to publish a picture or not remains with the editor of the paper, just as it does about whether to publish an article. Ultimately too, there will always be readers who disagree or remain unmoved. What is important is to keep the lines of communication open, and to let it is important to ‘talk’ to them and let them know that their opinions matter.

For the record, I did not have any problems with the objections raised to the publication of the picture of the dying Egyptian police chief published by The Straits Times or last year's award winning World Press Photo photograph of the two young children killed in Gaza City.

NOTE: The writer  is a freelance photographer and also lectures on photojournalism at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communications. - Readers' ed.