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Gruesome Haiti Photo: A Need for Context

by Alicia C. Shepard
Jan 25, 2010

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Whenever there is a major disaster involving death and destruction, the question of how to handle pictures of dead bodies arises at news organizations.

"All forms of publications struggle with the dead body question," said Terry Eiler, a veteran photojournalist who is director of Ohio University's school of visual communication. "Can I run this dead body in my publication without offending, harming, hurting or disturbing the audience? When you are looking at the scale of destruction in Haiti you can't tell that story without showing dead bodies."

NPR is no different, although its editors differed on whether to prominently display a jarring photo of a man stepping over or on dead bodies on its website home page less than two days after the Jan. 12 earthquake devastated Haiti.

Instantly some staffers demanded that the Jan. 14 image be taken down.

Nicole Werbeck, a home page editor who spotted the photo by Juan Barreto of Agence France Press, thought differently.

"It really stopped me," she said. "I feel like I've seen quite a bit. So when one photo really grabs my attention I go through a mental checklist asking if the photo adds value to the story. Is it informational? What about the graphic nature?"

She believed the photo was worth running because many news organizations were reporting at the time that people were leaving bodies on the streets and in front of the morgue because there was nowhere to put them.

"Bodies were everywhere," she said. "This was the first concrete proof of these reports that I had seen. On the home page I thought it would be more effective. The anonymous nature of the photo such as no faces being shown, but still having such a huge impact on me, really drew me in."

In her 17 years as an editor, she has run only 3 photos of a dead body.

By now, with the 24-hour news cycle, NPR's web audience may be accustomed to seeing images of dead bodies. But this photo ran when not a lot was known about the precise circumstances that it depicted.

So at the decision-making point, there were three questions to ask: Should NPR use it at all? If so, how? And, was it appropriate for the home page?

"Nicole and I discussed the photo at length, and I felt the photo was powerful, possibly iconic, and expressed the depth and horror of the tragedy — something I felt we had not adequately done to that point in print," said Randy Lilleston, home page team supervisor. "In the end, I felt the power of the photo — it told the story in a way that words could never succeed in doing — outweighed the sensitivity concerns."

Keith Jenkins, head of NPR's multimedia division, thought NPR should not run the photo on the home page without providing more context. [Hear Jenkins discuss disaster photography on Tell Me More.] Heather Murphy, a multimedia producer, didn't think it belonged there at all.

"I said definitely not. It's way too gruesome for the home page," said Murphy. "I thought the image was so horrifying that I didn't think it would engage people and that's what we want to do."

This particular photo served to point out some deficiencies within NPR's online presence. First, no clear mechanism exists to have quick but thorough discussions about potentially controversial images.

"This photo should have required a fairly broad editorial discussion," said Jenkins, who wasn't consulted. "That said, we ended up having that conversation after the fact. This is one of those conversations that you can't have too often."

A bigger problem exists within the home page architecture. Currently, NPR has no procedure for putting captions on photos on the home page. Most of the time, this isn't a problem because the photo speaks for itself. But in this instance, the image gives the impression that the streets are so thick with dead bodies one has to pick their way through.

"Not even factoring in the caption issue, my initial look/read of the photo was it didn't seem like what people were describing and what we were seeing in other photos," said Jenkins.

The photo showed dead bodies outside a morgue but most of the talk was about dead bodies on the streets, so someone could get the impression — without a caption or explanatory headline — that this was a typical scene on the streets of Port au Prince.

The wire service caption that accompanied the image said, "A man makes his way amidst lifeless bodies outside the morgue in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 14, 2010."

Buried 766 words into the story below the photo, it said that "bodies were strewn on almost every street" and "people have also piled bodies in front of the city's main hospitals."

But the top of the story dealt with survivors. So without a caption the picture became a Rorschach test for the viewer: Were the streets so crowded with dead bodies that this man had to step on or over them? Was he looking for someone? Or was he some kind of jerk who was hopping across dead bodies to get from Point A to B?

We don't know. Five people could look at the photo and each see something different.

Mark Stencel, managing editor for digital news, saw the photo this way: "As the death toll was clearly mounting when the home page team showed me that particular image, my immediate reaction was that's the image of the day," he said. "It caught this man carefully stepping between bodies and that seemed to capture what we were saying in our reports."

He said NPR had run even more graphic photos, and the anonymity of the bodies made him more comfortable with running this image.

Murphy said she felt the picture was misleading. "It made it look like the streets of Port au Prince were so filled with dead bodies that you had to nowhere to walk," she said. "That wasn't the case."

I think the photo should not have been used unless it was accompanied by an explanatory caption.

Stencel disagrees, saying that when readers got into Kevin Whitelaw's story next to the photo, they learned what it was about. "I don't think we needed a caption that said there were dead bodies in Haiti," said Stencel. "I am certainly one of those people who believe the America media can be a little prudish about difficult images."

The problem with this argument is that the photo immediately captured a viewer's attention, but it's unlikely that everyone who saw it read deep into the accompanying news story.

Other news outlets ran this photo, but not as prominently as did NPR. It was more common for the photo to run in a gallery, which is where it ended up on npr.org after an hour, said Murphy.

Alan Taylor, who edits The Big Picture on the Boston Globe's Boston.com, ran Barreto's photo but put it in a narrative photo gallery behind a warning to click to view graphic content. [Here's how it ran on Yahoo and Macleans in Canada.]

"In this case, there are thousands of raw, emotional photos," said Taylor, who runs his photos 990 pixels wide. "I know from personal experience people make regular visits to my site and often with children and I don't want to be party to inflicting something like this picture on somebody. I wouldn't use that one as an opener because it's all about hitting you over the head."

Taylor also said the photo needed a caption. Shortly after it ran, NPR figured out a way to embed photo galleries, which do have captions, into the home page. Stencel said NPR is now working on captions for home page photos.

I, by no means, advocate keeping disturbing images from NPR viewers. Gruesome, eye-turning images tell the story and explain the scale of tragedies such as Haiti's earthquake. But context is critical — especially when a photo is not immediately clear to all viewers.

NPR did not provide the required context to help viewers absorb this picture without feeling that it was merely sensational or confusing. In a tragedy of this magnitude, there is no need for sensationalism..

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