A big question about the coverage of Cyclone Nargis was raised for me from this post by Tami at Racialicious (it was originally posted at What Tami Said). Tami describes her own experience watching CNN coverage of the storm:

There were bodies and bodies and more bodies–Burmese men, women, even children, dead, bloated, discolored and rotting in the Southeast Asian sun; arms and legs akimbo as if their owners had been tossed like rag dolls. I know this is what death looks like, especially when it takes place in a poor country where the people have been colonized, militarized and rocked by ethnic strife and drug trafficking. But I watched the television and couldn’t help thinking that this video desecration of the already desecrated was another example of how American culture sees brown people as somehow less human.

She goes on to challenge the value of showing such graphic images of death, and to assert that the victims’ race influences media decisions about whether to show those images or not:

What are the chances that CNN will show the broken bodies of the 22 people killed in twisters that plowed across the central United States this weekend, y’know so we get “the enormity of the story?” We did not need to see graphic footage of victims to understand the enormity of Oklahoma City or 9/11. I do remember seeing some footage of the dead in Katrina–not as graphic as the Myanmar coverage–but we all know those folks weren’t American anyway, they were “refugees.” (Tongue firmly in cheek, here.

I especially take Tami’s point about images of dead people from the 2000 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks. Showing such images would have been considered impossibly disrespectful. Is it the fact that the victims of the cyclone live far away, have different colors of skin from most of the U.S. news audience, and live lives that seem remote to us that makes it more acceptable to show images of their dead bodies?

When I brought this problem up with friends, one suggested that the answer to that question might lie partly in the immediacy of the Oklahoma and September 11 attacks to the majority of the U.S. news audience. For whatever reason, we felt those events as tragedies that were “close to home;” we didn’t need graphic images to understand them. So perhaps graphic images can serve as a (poor) substitute to whatever nationalistic or cultural feelings bind us to the victims of homegrown tragedies?

In general, I incline toward encouraging graphic language about—and images of—mass death, because I think it is one way to heighten the audience’s ethical awareness of the events that caused the deaths. I think it is an important means of piercing Michael Ignatieff’s “carapace of self-absorption and estrangement that separates us from the moral worlds of others.” But plenty of thinkers-about-journalism have argued that physically realistic images of death can serve as a sort of “war-” or “disaster-porn,” objectifying the subjects of the portrayal without engaging the reader on a deeper level. And if it is true that we see more images of nonwhite victims of natural disaster, then that understanding of graphic images has to be taken even more seriously.

Ignatieff goes on: “The struggle to believe one’s senses is at the heart of the process of moving from voyeurism to commitment.” So I guess the question is whether images of dead bodies help us to believe what is being described, or wheter—since it is so often “others” who are pictured—it reinforces or amplifies our estrangement from them.

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