If a pizza shop refused to sell pizza, everyone would say it was run by crazy people.
What does it say about the people who run the news media that they don’t want to report news?
If you read on, you probably expect this lede to be revealed as hyperbole. Sorry, no. I mean it: newspaper editors and TV producers routinely come across delicious slices of news, and then decide not to publish it or put it on the air.
Yet nobody calls them what they are: censors.
Or crazy people.
News businesses constantly refuse to serve news to eager news consumers. Because censorship is normative, it rarely makes the news itself.
This week’s debate over whether to run photos of the body of a 3-year-old boy on a beach, a Syrian refugee boy who drowned off the coast of Turkey, is a revealing exception.
“As the photographs appeared again and again in timelines on Facebook and Twitter, spurred in part by their publication on the websites of major European newspapers, a debate broke out about the ethics of sharing such graphic images of a dead child,” Robert Mackey reported in The New York Times. “There were also disagreements inside newsrooms about whether to publish or even share the images. A number of reporters argued forcefully that it was necessary to confront the public with the human toll of the war in Syria, and the impact of policies that make it difficult for refugees to find asylum in Europe. But many editors were concerned about shocking their readers and wanted to avoid the appearance of trafficking in sensational images for profit.”
Debate? There should be no debate.
Newspapers sell news. When an editor decides whether an item ought to go into her newspaper, she ought to consider one question, and one question only:
Is it news?
If it’s news, it goes in. No matter what.
Clearly, Europe’s refugee crisis is news. Tens of thousands of people, many fleeing civil wars and poverty in north Africa and the Middle East, are escaping to Europe on rickety vessels, some of which founder and sink in the Mediterranean. The European Union can’t come up with a plan to deal with them. It’s a story involving big issues like nativism, xenophobia, racism and a vacuum of political leadership, as well as blowback from American and European foreign interventionism.
Though sentimental and perhaps a big mawkish, the heartbreaking photo of the drowned boy illustrates the human cost of Europe’s failure vis-à-vis the refugee crisis. Which makes it news.
So it should run.
Easy decision, really. So why are editors worried about irrelevant concerns, like whether the photo is “tasteful”?
For some editors, according to the Times, it came down to whether readers could see the boy’s face:
“Many news organizations in the United States decided to publish pictures of the dead child in their print or online editions, but they were divided over whether to show more graphic images of the boy lying in the sand with his face partially visible. The New York Times published a less jarring image that shows a Turkish police officer carrying the child away but conceals his face. Several other newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal and The Baltimore Sun, followed the same course of action.”
Thank you, Editor Nanny, but I’ll take my news the way God intended it: 200 proof, undiluted.
This is yet another case of a tiny good — respect for the dead — causing a big harm.
Hundreds of people, including that Syrian boy, are dying, and dying horribly. Their deaths are totally avoidable. The EU, home to hundreds of millions of people, can easily absorb even a million refugees. The U.S., whose foreign wars are in large part responsible for the crisis, can help subsidize resettlement costs, and invite many of the victims to come here.
Posting the more “jarring” image (which appeared all over the Internet anyway) might help jar the world into taking action. Conversely, not posting it delays action, guaranteeing that more little boys will die.
Surely saving those boys is more important than worrying making readers queasy over their morning cereal — yes, even if some of those readers are kids themselves.
“I understand the argument for running the photo as a way to raise awareness and call attention to the severity of the refugee crisis, and I don’t begrudge outlets that did,” Vox media editorial director Max Fisher, “but I ultimately I decided against running it because the child in that photo can’t consent to becoming a symbol.” Does this mean Vox won’t run any images of dead people, ever? Or images of people who don’t consent to being photographed? That’ll make Vox even more boring.
You know what’s worse than taking a chance that kids will see pictures of dead kids? Not taking that chance, so that more kids wind up dead.
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