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5 Guidelines: Covering War and Terror Ethically


Nairobi, Kenya. Pixabay.

As curators of what the public see, the media is faced with the daily challenge of making deadlines while still adhering to strong journalism ethical practices.

Ethical decision-making in situations such as these are vital. Here is a list of guidelines to follow for best ethical decision-making:

1. Is the photograph evoking empathy?

“A photographer without empathy…

is just taking up space

that could be better used.”

In 2014, an article was written, concerning a photo of an Iraqi Soldier who had burnt to death while trying to escape his vehicle. The photo was taken in 1991 by Kenneth Jarecke in Kuwait during the Gulf War. This photo did not even make it to most American news desks, except the New York Times who decided not to publish it because of editorial decisions. The article states “The image and its anonymous subject might have come to symbolize the Gulf War.” Jarecke, who believes empathy is crucial in the coverage of death and violence says “A photographer without empathy… is just taking up space that could be better used.”

Almost 30 years later, the New York Times published the photo that caused uproar. All photos used in the article evoke the same feeling - shock. The photo in question does not evoke a unique emotion in comparison and the question then becomes: why publish a photo of dead bodies when other photos adequately convey the same message? These are questions that we need to be aware of. As a general rule if the photo becomes gratuitous and communicates a lack of empathy from the photographer or editorial decision-maker it will in turn not evoke empathy from the audience.

Kim Ludbrook, Zimbabwean-born photojournalist, Regional Chief Photographer, EPA Photos, says that "When you start divorcing yourself from the story, it becomes a dangerous space to be in." Ludbrook believes that it is vital to remain human while covering violence.

2. What is my bias in the situation?

Every journalist is biased and needs to learn to navigate that in order to be as objective as possible. If the media would not publish a similar image that happened in their country, what is the motivation to do so of countries abroad? This may sometimes create the perception that violence only happens elsewhere and once again diminishes empathy felt by the audience.

3. What is my role?

Debbie Yazbek, a freelance photographer in Johannesburg, and photographer during the Apartheid regime, says that the journalist’s job is always to document the situation. Whether to publish it is a different decision. “Pictures should only be used if they will make a difference and bring home the story.” Yazbek further punctuates “I feel strongly that when you’re in a situation you need to be mindful that it is somebody’s family member or community.”

“Pictures should only be used

if they will make a difference and bring home the story.”

4. Will the timing of publication have an effect?

In the era of internet-immediacy, photographs can be seen by people who are still in the situation. Practitioners need to weigh-up the effects of what the content may have.

Ludbrook explains that for journalists in the field today "We can transmit a photo instantly from our cameras," to be published by media outlets within a few minutes. "I feel sorry for the relatives who see the picture in a newspaper or on Twitter."

Ludbrook further elaborates "I am there to record, not to take sides," and stresses the role of the journalist to record everything as it is a vital part of history and that at the end of the day the decision to publish it is out of the photographer's hands.

5. If you make a mistake, own up.

Mistakes will happen. When the media offends the victims they destroy their trust. In sensitive situations and when the situation is volatile, media outlets need to be especially heedful in their approach. Being honest and heart-felt if the situation requires it will go a long way in building relationships with audiences and subject matters.

Ludbrook believes that as a photojournalist "I am the mirror to the world." This is a great responsibility but also a very powerful role media practitioners have.

"I am the mirror to the world."

This story has been edited to remove a Twitter picture that was doctored. The image was purported to be a social media update by New York Times but a Twitter user had changed the image to show the bodies of those shot by Al Shabaab. We would like to apologise for the error.


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