The Star Sinai fire photo: a matter of ethics,facts and truth

The photo published by The Star :The scene at the Sinai slum at Viwandani location where fire prompted by a burst KPC pipeline. Over 80 people perished and hundreds injured. Photo/Jack Owuor

Today I have received many calls and  emails on the splash photo of the Sinai fire tragedy. If by chance you have not seen a copy of The Star today I have attached the photo.

Many readers have demonized the paper and even the media watchdog Media Council of Kenya has raised the red flag. Social Media is awash with utter ‘shock’ at the ‘sensational’ route that the paper has taken to sell more copies.

Some social media ‘experts’ have ended up complaining about the paper even before seeing a copy. One blogger has even quoted some sections of the media law that The Star contravened. But the truth be told 120 Kenyans died in this inferno,this is no small number.

I still maintain that publishing the photo was a matter of ethics and not law. And as I will discuss later ethics is a subjective matter.

To discuss my point of view on why the  charred photo was published I will base my arguments The Social Responsibility theory of the media.

Most of the quotes below are paraphrased from my published work “To shoot or not:An examination of ethical dilemma in photojournalism in Uganda” 2007.

The theory is a balance between libertarian and authoritarian control of the media. This theory emerged in 1940s and looked at modern cities as “Great Communities” made up of hundreds of interrelated small groups.

The strength of the theory lie on its emphasis on media responsibility on one hand and audience responsibility on the other. In essence if the society portrays itself negatively then it would have acted irresponsibly and hence the media should go ahead and mirror what the society does.

Did the society at Sinai slum act irresponsibly? Was the Star mirroring what our society is and how such careless acts can lead to careless and most often painful deaths? These are questions I would try to answer later on.

But on the other hand,the theory argues, the media has a responsibility to publish accurate and balanced news.

Dennis McQuail, a media scholar, notes that one of the principles is that the media should accept and fulfill certain obligations to the society. He says that the only way for the media  to realize these obligations is through setting of high professional standards of informativeness,truth,accuracy,objectivity and balance.

Does this photo tell the story? Rescue personnel make frantic afford to search for bodies at River Ngong in Sinai slum after a slum fire caused by leaking fuel that left at least 120 dead .Photo/Philip Kamakya

And here I ask. Do photo(journalists) have an overriding right to publish photographs that are accurate but undermine the moral standards of the society?

Photojournalism is an extremely significant window on our humanity and inhumanity according to Media scholars Christians et al.

Photographs inform,educate,and enlighten us about the present and it illuminate the past. It records beauty and ugliness,poverty and opulence. When such pictures are used in the media they help us understand the impact of those events on human beings.

Everyday photojournalists are faced with tough ethical decisions to make,and they need to think fast.They may end up shooting photographs that offend a section of the public,or generate public debate on an issue.

Photos leave a permanent mark entrenched on the readers mind.Photojournalists operate as trustees of the public. Their primary role is to report visually on significant events. They have to faithfully and comprehensively depict the subject at hand. As photojournalists they have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its history through images.

Photographic images can reveal great truths,expose wrongdoing and neglect,inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding.

Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or manipulated. In balancing their responsibility to the public and the public demand to know,photojournalists are faced with a dilemma of whether to shoot a given photo or not. And that the most captivating picture may not be taken because of personal values or fear of public condemnation.

With such a dilemma the photojournalist is left to walk the narrow path and attempt to please both the moralists and the editors who always look for that one picture that will sale the paper.

It is true that in the name of reporting news the photojournalists is  actually caught in those opportunistic professional values that build circulation by playing on the human emotions.

On the other hand ethics are systems of moral principles that serves as the foundation of the way we conduct ourselves as human beings. A sense of ethics is what stimulates our sense of outrage and disgust at the obscenities we have witnessed in our life time-the holocaust,war,starvation,rape,murder and even the unnecessary deaths like the Sachangwan fire tragedy and now Sinai slum pipeline fire.

After my argument I understand the anguish the publishing of the above photo on the cover page of  The Star newspaper had to most Kenyans. Readers have responded angrily and some have even called the paper a tabloid that is not worth being bought(Although they still bought the paper anyway).

We  journalist  have the responsibility to inform the public on what really happened especially in an incident where more than 100 Kenyans have lost their lives. We are still asking who is to blame for the fire but images of burnt iron sheets and a crowd of people will not shock us enough to demand action from government.

Kenya Pipeline failed to detect the leak which in turn made poor Kenyans to strive to earn a coin by scooping the fuel. Indeed we are living in hard economic times and more so are the people who live in slums.

The photojournalist who took this photo and many other scary photos had his share of trauma at the scene. Thousands of Sinai residents including relatives to the dead were at the scene looking at the gory images of their loved ones. It was courageous of the photographer to pose and shoot the photo. He knew that the country depended on him to tell them what really happened. And the photo of the body which was burnt to ashes told the story in the most compelling way,a reader did not need to be told how severe the fire was,the bones burnt to ashes told the whole story.

As a media the only way to show the impact of the fire is through using such a photo that make us stop and think twice about the governments sheer negligence.

There are no easy answers while discussing ethical issues. Every thing we do is subjective and the reason why we want to publish a story or an image will ultimately depend on our own moral standing and feelings. But as journalists we still have the responsibility to truthfully report what happens especially in a public place like Sinai.

In the end we have decided to shoot the messenger and forgotten the message that more than 100 Kenyans have died in a horrific fire that the same media NTV and Daily Nation had warned about in 2008. If the government had taken measures then we would not have seen such a disturbing photo.

The author is the Photo Editor at The Star newspaper,

He holds a Bachelors of Mass Communication degree from Makerere University,Kampala,Uganda

Has trained in Multimedia and Online Journalism in Berlin,Germany


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Posted on September 13, 2011, in General News and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. Good report Joesph,it took me back to the classroom and of course reminded me of the thin line btn morals and ethics.

  2. I only have one issue; there were no efforts whatsoever to minimize harm in the content published. Ethical journalist should treat sources, subjects as human being deserving respect. At least, showing compassion for those who may be affected greatly by news coverage, being sensitive when dealing with children, using photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief and recognizing the gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort

  3. Pictures will always be the best story telling devices. Personally I support the use of the photo because it gives us a significant look of the whole event. There would not have been a better way of showing how serious it was. It clearly gives us an insight of how negligent and dismissive the government is, and, how careless, forgetful and ignorant we as Kenyans have become.

  4. Well, Joseph, you have some good argument but as I said, it all depends on the message you want to put across and while doing so both the questions of ethics, morals and duty to report acturately and ‘as it is’ should be at the back of our minds.It is while debating on all these issues that you realize the responsible bestowed upon us by the society and how to apply it.

  5. Your narration read as a copy paste from a text book, just imputing a few words here and there to read like an original piece, no wonder someone here comments that it’s like classroom. This is sheer self gratification that your decision no matter how offensive will yield results, wishful thinking and anticipating public anger to force GoK to act. Please….

    • Ken thanks for your feedback,indeed this are excerpts from my own dissertation published in 2007 “To shoot or not:An examination of ethical dilemma in photojournalism in Uganda” Will apprecatie if you also put some arguments to court mine. Ethics as I said has no right answers,and two people will never agree. Ethics s different from laws.

  6. Karis i wish you could publish your report in the Nairobi Star.The picture was just a brave demonstration of the role of Media in Kenya

    • Yes Caroline,sometimes we forget how brave the people who cover such events are. They are also traumatized by seeing hundred dead bodies scattered all over. But I guess in Kenya it is easier to lynch the messenger than the real culprit.

  7. This is an objective article and highly informative. It is becoming more and more difficult to find such pieces in blogs. I just wrote a piece on media that I’m going to post in my blog today. Please check it out too! Thanks

  8. … and yes, sometimes the publication of such a picture is more beneficial in the long run, when compared with the temporary satisfaction of hiding from reality, from the truth

  9. one can look at the implications of such a picture from diverse angles.My first instict when i first saw the photo was disgust and contempt to the photojournalist.The picture is still etched in my mind.When i put emotions aside i began to appreciate the diverse angles of the Sinai Story:from the Govt neglect,KPC,The slum population disregard of values,the firefighters,rescue operations to mention but a few.The picture is worth a thousand words and it elicits the right reactions.Media ethics observed.Good job
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  11. I don’t read newspapers hence never saw this picture. Now that I have, this photo only gives the true reality on the ground. I am a photographer and one year later I think this was a brave take and worth publishing. Just imagine you were an innocent passer-by and the picture is you? Lets preach it as it is! We never seem to learn though!

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