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As I’ve discussed before, I’ve been rethinking my ideas about the publication of graphic photographs of natural disaster aftermaths. The devastating earthquake in Haiti this month has raised the issue again, as photos of dead bodies have made it to the print and virtual front pages of most major news organizations. In the last month, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, NPR’s Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, and newly appointed LA Times Readers’ Representative Deidre Edgar have all written columns about graphic images in their publications, addressing some of the complex questions that the use of such photos raises.

Most of the ombuds approve of their publications’ use of graphic photos of dead people, though Shepard’s column is devoted to one particular image featured on NPR’s home page that she thinks lacked the context necessary to make it editorially useful. Overall, the feeling among people who think full time about journalism seems to be that the enormity of the earthquake’s devastation could not be communicated without graphic photos.

I think it’s almost definitely true that the enormity of the earthquake’s devastation could not be communicated in the current media environment without graphic photos (though I do sometimes wonder if we undervalue the power of language to communicate tragedy). But one question that none of the ombuds addressed was whether there are problematic messages communicated by the photos that might outweigh the imperative to communicate this specific story to its fullest. I wonder if it’s possible that these images, while helping us wrap our minds around the earthquake and its impact on a poor and historically disadvantaged nation, could imperil our broader understanding of Haiti or its people.

One of the most troubling elements of graphic photographs of distant tragedies is inadvertently emphasized in Alexander’s January 24 Post column, which explains almost in passing that some newspapers (no mention of whether the Post was among them) “shy from running explicit photos of deaths in their circulation area because many readers may be connected to the deceased.” Alexander goes on, “In the case of Haiti, [director of the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University Terry] Eiler said, ‘Distance allows some to feel as if it’s happening away from us.’ ” The idea that such images  are more likely to be used when the reader feels distance from the subjects lends credence to critiques that graphic depictions of death create (or exacerbate) a sense of “otherness” about the victims they portray. If audiences are only exposed to photos of dead bodies when the people pictured can be classified as somehow “different” (geographically, racially or socioeconomically) from the majority of the publication’s readership, then the photos themselves become a marker of difference. They might actually create emotional distance from victims, even as they accentuate the visceral horror of the event they are representing.*

Hoyt’s January 23 New York Times column includes a photo editor’s assertion that the paper would publish similarly gruesome photos of a natural disaster in the U.S. if it could obtain the photos. Hoyt, citing Kenneth Irby, the head of the visual journalism center at the Poynter Institute, points out that U.S. officials are quick to cordon off the scenes of disasters, keeping photojournalists out. So even a publication that treated domestic and international disasters with similar sensibilities would likely create the appearance of difference by publishing more, and more graphic, photos of dead people from distant disasters than from nearby ones. From the audience’s perspective, the media organizations have still established a division between people who are allowed to be photographed in death and people who are not.

It’s impossible for me to consider the question of graphic photos of natural disasters without thinking about the relative absence of dead bodies in war reporting. War photography invites the the same concerns as disaster photography about creating distance from victims portrayed in graphic photos (especially since the U.S. media strictly controls photography of its own dead and dying soldiers, making it much easier for journalists to display dead people from other countries). But I think there are reasons to publicize the horror of death and dying in wars that simply don’t exist for natural disasters. It seems obvious that the destruction of human bodies is the most important story when a natural disaster occurs. But it is easier to forget (particularly with the complicity of a squeamish news media) that war is about destroying human bodies, too. The way we talk about war often makes it seem more about ideas—national security, sovereignty, regime change—than about the death and dying that are war’s central building blocks.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry discusses how torture and war are similar in that, in both, “the incontestable reality of the body—the body in pain, the body maimed, the body dead and hard to dispose of—is separated from its source and conferred on an ideology or issue or instance of political authority impatient of, or deserted by, benign sources of substantiation.” Graphically violent war photography is worth publishing, despite the considerable risks of doing so, if it helps remind audiences of the centrality of death and dying in war, independent of ideology.

*I do not mean to suggest that audiences of U.S. news publications are uniformly white or non-Haitian, only that most audience members will at least be physically distant from the victims, and many others will share one or more other markers of difference from the victims portrayed.

I just wanted to point to this interesting conversation between Megan Carpentier of Jezebel and Latoya Peterson of Racialicious about the relationship between race and the way disaster deaths are covered, pegged to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. And I wanted especially to point to Peterson’s blog post at Racialicious in which she discusses the earlier conversation (Racialicious, by the way, is always publishing interesting perspectives on race in the media). The original and meta discussions (and the comments attached to both) shed interesting light on the issues I looked at here. I still think language about and images of violence are necessary reminders of our responsibilities to the events being described. But it’s definitely important to remember how problematic that dynamic is when the current reality seems to be that the deaths of people considered “other” are treated more graphically than the deaths of white people in the U.S. and Europe.

The whole question makes me wonder if we should be thinking about the manner in which horrors are described, rather than the extent to which they are described or avoided. Is there a way to show violent death in all its horror without making it into “disaster porn”? To avoid the tabloidy, “house of horrors” approach and treat deaths with real gravity but without sanitizing violence? If that were possible, it seems like it would be the way to achieve the more complex understanding of “respect for the dead” briefly broached by Megan in the Jezebel conversation.

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.

The devastating natural disasters in Myanmar and China that have dominated this month’s news have unfortunately offered a good platform for examining the way news media outlets describe deaths that occur as a result of natural disasters. The question of how those deaths are communicated to distant readers is interesting in itself, but it also sets up interesting comparisons to the description of war deaths.

Some research I’ve conducted myself has suggested that natural disaster reporting is not more likely to use graphic physical descriptions of dead bodies than war reporting, but the cyclone and earthquake coverage in the last three weeks has made me want to revisit those findings.

The majority of the coverage that I have encountered has seemed both to discuss death more, and to evoke it more graphically, than an average day of war coverage. Entire lengthy articles are devoted to death tolls, and articles about other aspects of the cyclone and the earthquake are generally framed in terms of the human destruction that characterizes their aftermath (in several articles about the bureaucratic attitude of the Myanmar junta toward international offers of aid, reporters have juxtaposed it with the worsening physical conditions in the storm’s aftermath, for example). By contrast, death and killing can sometimes feel like a secondary element of war, mentioned in passing in articles that focus on military strategy or the political wrangling that usually accompanies war’s most violent episodes.

The nature of the descriptions of death in natural disaster reporting has also been notable. The descriptions are—appropriately—horrifying, describing the visual, tactile and olfactory attributes of death in ways that evoke the pain and horror of death. In the cyclone particularly, human remains and the difficulties inherent in disposing of them have been a major focus.

The screenshots below (from The New York Times online and are some examples I ran into this week of cyclone coverage specifically focusing on the physical realities of death: Front Page, May 8 Front Page, May 9 Front Page, May 13

If it’s true, as anecdotal evidence suggests, that the natural disaster descriptions include more, and more graphic, descriptions of death than war coverage, there are lots of possible explanations for this fact, most of them very reasonable from the perspective of journalists and editors. Chief among them, of course, is that though wars often kill many hundreds of thousands of people in a relatively short space of time, there are not likely to be tens of thousands of unburied bodies at any one moment. The U.S. news media is notoriously event-focused, and natural disaster deaths become “events” in themselves due to their much higher rate (in “deaths per minute”) than war deaths.

But I think it may also be true that war deaths aren’t considered as central to war as natural disaster deaths are to natural disasters. Many articles are published each year that discuss ongoing wars without once mentioning death explicitly. While death and destruction of human habitats are what make storms and earthquakes newsworthy, war is understood to have meaning outside of the deaths that it causes. Here’s how Elaine Scarry, in The Body in Pain, describes this phenomenon (emphasis hers):

The essential structure of war…resides in the relation between its own largest parts, the relation between the collective casualties that occur within war, and the verbal issues (freedom, national sovereignty, the right to a disputed ground, the extra-territorial authority of a particular ideology) that stand outside war, that are there before the act of war begins and after it ends, that are understood by warring populations as the motive and justification and will again be recognized after the war as the thing substantiated or (if one is on the losing side) not substantiated by war’s activity

Regardless of whether the explanation for the apparent discrepancy between descriptions of death in war and natural disaster reporting is practical or cultural, its effects seem important to examine. Do the prominently placed images and descriptions of dead bodies and ruined cities in coverage of the Myanmar cyclone and the earthquake in China make it more difficult for the reader to ignore those deaths than the deaths that occur every day in Iraq and Afghanistan? Should journalists and editors try to find ways to use the tools of natural disaster coverage to feature the carnage that results from war? In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss more about other ethical questions raised by graphic images of death and graphic physical language describing it in the news.