Readers of The New York Times were greeted last Saturday by an unusual sight – a dead body, on page one. The photo, by Reuters' Maxim Zmeyev, was of a victim of the MH17 plane disaster, and showed a pair of legs underneath a sheet of plastic, on top of which had been placed a red flower.
The newspaper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, called it "one of the most beautiful pictures of war I've seen in a long time,” but some readers disagreed, describing the use of the image as “gratuitous”. One reader, Celina Imielinska, said the use of the image was “unthinkable”, particularly as her own mother had died in “another major plane crash”.
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Despite perennial accusations of sensationalism, mainstream media have been notably squeamish when it comes to corpses, with a long-standing convention that in the case of war and mass casualty tragedies it is permissible to show everything – smoking ruins, personal possessions, even grieving families – except actual bodies.
But the events of this week – the MH17 disaster and the war in Gaza – appear to have reset the bar.
On July 18, TIME magazine published an image of a body of an MH17 passenger that had fallen through the roof of a home near the crash site. Online, images of dead Palestinian children seem to be everywhere, prompting Brendan O’Neill, a columnist with The Telegraph in London, to politely ask: “Can everyone please stop posting photos of dead Palestinian children all over the internet?”
The question about whether to publish such images is like “walking a tightrope”, says Michelle Gunn, editor of The Weekend Australian. “You’re balancing the imperative to convey the reality of the crime against the need not to cause unnecessary distress.”
Last Saturday, The Weekend Australian ran a photo of the body of an MH17 victim on page one, eliciting about a dozen complaints. “There was no disagreement about running that photo,” Gunn says.
“We all believed it was the right decision. But there were important concessions we made in doing so. We heavily cropped that photo to make sure you couldn’t identify who it was. We were also sensitive about picking a photo with not too much blood, burns or disfigurement. We also ran it small and below the fold.”
Gunn believes it was important not to “sanitise the moment”, a sentiment reflected by subsequent letters, which praised the paper for having the courage to run a photo “which showed the reality of war”.
Interestingly, just weeks before, the newspaper ran images of the jihadist group, ISIS, executing dozens of Iraqi policemen. “And we didn’t get one letter about it,” Gunn says. “I think the debate over last Saturday’s photo has to do with the fact that some of the MH17 victims are Australian.”
The creeping use of more graphic imagery by mainstream media is at least partly due to social media, according to Julie Posetti, a University of Wollongong journalism academic and Research Fellow with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers in Paris.
"Social media platforms are the Wild West of publication. Journalists and traditional news publishers are no longer the primary information gatekeepers of public discourse; neither are they able to impose their professional publication standards and ethics on social media users and bloggers.”
As participants in social media, journalists are equally exposed to graphic content and potentially become desensitised to it, Posetti says, “meaning that images may need to be increasingly graphic to be deemed 'newsworthy’.”
There is also the competitive element: “The social media news cycle both speeds up reporting and causes increasing competitiveness between journalists, but also with other content producers, for example, citizen photojournalists. This leads to the highly problematic arguments: ‘If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us' and 'If we don't publish it our competitors will’.”
For certain audiences, death remains the ultimate porn. Among the most popular results in a twitter search for MH17 are “#MH17 bodies pictures”, “#MH17 bodies graphic”, and “MH17 bodies”. Meanwhile, video-hosting websites like Liveleak offer pages of uncensored material with tags like “new images from Iraq show Assads mean [sic] after being beheaded by the Islamic state”, and ''Israeli soldier gets shot by sniper dies like a fly”.
So, in a world where anyone can post anything, is it time for a new protocol?
“No,” says Bruce Guthrie, former editor of The Age and editorial director at thenewdaily.com.au. “The test for me hasn’t changed and it’s a twofold question: is the story of such historical and social impact that it justifies publication of confronting pictures? And two: is it the only way to tell that story?"
He believes most mainstream news sites showed sound judgment in their treatment of Gaza and MH17. "If we are running behind social media [in the use of graphic imagery], then I’m glad of it," he says. "Besides, I haven’t heard too many people complaining that they didn’t see enough horror."