Sunday Nation ‘gory’ Westgate Photo-Ethical debate rages

The Photo that was used by the Sunday Nation that has generated ethical issues

The Photo published by the Sunday Nation that has raised a number of ethical issues

On Saturday at around midday, unknown number of gunmen invaded upmarket Westgate Mall in Westland  shooting at least 62 people and injuring 200 more. It was an unexpected attack that left many at a loss. The attack was reminiscent of the 1998 US embassy bombing in Nairobi that lest .

Kenyans cut shot their weekend plans and stayed glued on their television set looking at scenes only seen on movies like ‘The Hostage’ but unlike the heroic ending pf the hostage situation things were different at Westgate. There was blood and tears everywhere.

Dead bodies were scattered on the main entry of the prestige mall only frequented by the monied in Kenya. In parking lots where on a normal day fuel guzzlers of all make and shapes park were bodies of children and women felled by the gun.

The country was in mourning. The Social Media was awash with all theories trying to explain the motive and those behind the brazen attacks on innocent civilians. Word started filtering of the deaths of colleagues at Radio Africa who had been felled by the Al Shabaab bullet.

It is understandable that on Sunday Kenyans were awaiting the delivery of the favorite newspaper to review the sad events of the past day. When The Sunday Nation,the leading Sunday paper had captured the horror of the day with a closeup photo of a woman in pain with blood covered face. I thought then that it was a horrific photo that captured the magnitude of the attack. But a friend I was driving to work with pointed out that he can  never take that newspaper home.

The Social Media had already started a campaign dubbed #BoycottDailyNation and by Sunday Afternoon NMG  CEO Linus Gitahi of the giant media house issued an apology for use of the photo through his Twitter handle and on NTV.

“Kenyans, we made a poor judgement on our front page photo today. We sincerely apologize for the hurt caused,” tweeted Gitahi.

On Monday an apology was for the first time published on page 1 of the Daily Nation. I came to learn later that NMG editorial Director Joseph Odindo took responsibility and was suspended.

A friend an a colleague Jared Ombui invited me to a discussion on the Sunday Nation photo. Ombui threw the first salvo,”To the Sunday Nation, selling the newspaper counts more than the professional ethics.”

To date a vibrant debate on the photo is on going with some supporting the newspaper while others castigating the paper.

Wanjiku Ngare said, “It is so insensitive of the NMG(to publish the photo.” On the same issue Brenda Kaku opined “Jared am appalled!”

Another contributor Racheal Nakitare wrote,”OMG! Im sure we can get more illustrative yet humane pictures.”

Trini Firecracker, “As a nation do we have a policy on how the media should present images of victims??? Yes/No, i believe protection should be key esp. 4children. Smthng got 2b done 2stop th current trend on broadcast, print n social media asap. It’s perturbing.”

The most lively debate was posted by William Recktenwald who seems to support the paper’s move to publish the photo. ” 59 dead! A terrible and shocking event accompanied by a shocking photo, it is the duty of the news to tell the story.”

But William got an immediate rebuke by Daudi Guma Mwesigye, “William, I don’t remember seeing photos of 9-11 victims.” But William Recktenwald  had a ready answer for David, “Your memory has faded, first of all, most victims were never recovered in whole. 9-11 was not a shooting. Do you recall the people who jumped? Go to Google images search for 9-11 jumpers.”

But David and William’s banter was cut short by Ron Henning.  “The callousness of journalists is not news; all over the world the principle remains: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

William who was now getting impatient with this whole attack posted ‘for the last time’, “I am not sure what your point is. Journalists tell the story, bad stories have sad photos, Joseph Pulitzer advised to “Never be afraid to attack wrong.” Evens like those in Kenya, 9-11, OK City, and the streets of Chicago we tell the story as it is, for Mr. Henning who I doubt is a journalist, I guess would have put a story about someones 104th birthday on p. 1, right? enough of this exchange for me.”

At which time I intervened, “Editors make tough decisions they see far worse photos than readers and sometimes they decide to share the pain.”

And just at the nick of time William had a new supporter in Mike Conklin  who said that People should worry less about how something is covered and more about why it happened.

But Ron Henning was at it against castigating those in support of the photo.

“I agree the story needs to be told, but who is served by the sensationalism of such a full-page photo? The victim’s hurt and humiliation is exploited by a paper, and the reader/purchaser is stirred to sympathy after the fact, and the wider circulation of the photo only serves to incite fear. The violence happened, and the photo does nothing to prevent future violence, but it does make people want to avoid Nairobi and (given most Americans’ geographic illiteracy about Africa ) all of Africa.

Lisa Black wondered, “I find it ironic that we don’t mind watching horrific violence in movies and TV, but when it comes to showing truth — in all its horror — people don’t want to see it.”

My Photojournalism and Media Ethics teacher at Makerere University Dr.William Tayeebwa had an interesting insight into the whole discussion and brought in something to mull on.

“Most from either side is said Joseph Kariuki, but there is the other angle: such photos actually serve the interests of the terrorists! That was the argument of withholding 9-11 by most reputable outlets. So, SN in this case increased the terror = terrorists happy!”

Chris Tsuma a media studies teacher at one of the leading universities in Kenya supports  the Nation editors on use of photo. During a class discussion yesterday his student maintained it was bad for the newspaper to run the photo. But he poses,” This was a terrorist attack,there was blood and people died. What photos can illustrate such a heartless attack than this?”

The Star of South Africa front page photo of Westgate attack.

The Star of South Africa front page photo of Westgate attack.

Sunday Nation accused by Poynter of flipping photo

Poynter accused Sunday Nation of flipping the victim’s photo to get desired effect, “But that photo was flipped “to make it work better with the layout,” Charles Apple notes.

“Journalists need to stop altering reality,” Justin Best, who spotted the manipulation after seeing Reuters transmit the original, told Apple in an email. The Star of South Africa(right) used the same photo but maintained its original composition.

Arguments have been raised on whether flipping a photo distort or recreate a whole new photo. But obviously Sunday Nation’s photo  was flipped and cropped to grab the readers attention.

But Nitha KaRa brought in a sudden twist to the debate. “Absolutely.@william recktenwald – you are far too normative in your thinking. First, we must consider consent and dignity. I saw photos of my dead cousin online that are being used and reproduced without consent. What right does a journalist have to us.”

Nitha giving the side of what a victim of such attacks feel continued.a”I am not saying that we shouldn’t publish violent images. I am arguing that there is a conversation to be had that is far more complex than @william recktenweld’s “Journalists tell the story, bad stories have sad photos” (quote).”

After all these deliberations which to me will enrich studies of photojournalism in our media schools. The question of whether it was  right or wrong for Sunday Nation to publish doesn’t arise. It is a question of ethics,and ethics as media scholars have argued can be debated from different point of view. The above discussion just shows how different people view issues.

An Editor at the Nation told me that the use of the photo was debated and well thought out. The paper was trying to be courageous in describing the terror of the day and probably forgot the impact of the photo to its readers. As a Photo Editor I have received a fair share of attacks of choice of some controversial photos I have allowed their publication. Like the Sinai fire and Tana River massacre photos.

On the other had we have to think of how the victims of such heinous attacks will want to be depicted in the media. For Editors it will always remain tough questions when such incidences occur. Editors have to balance the effect of the photos used and the public interest.


About Kenya Reporter

The other side of the news.

Posted on September 24, 2013, in General News and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. In such complex situations, I always insist on making recall to tried and successful models. That is the same situation when you receive some complicated phone, in which case you must read the manul /users’ guide. Often in newsrooms, we rush decisions and regret later. Why? So, Kenyan Reporter, pull out your Potter’s Box:
    “Step 1 in the Potter Box is to define the situation. List the facts of the situation you are in, so that you can better understand it.
    In step 2 you will be identifying your values. Basically, what do you stand for?
    Step 3 involves identifying your guiding principle or philosophy e.g. “always tell the public the truth”?
    Step 4 Choose your loyalties. Who or what is most important for you to stand up for?
    Step 5 of the Potter Box you will be making your decision. This decision must be justified, based on the previous steps. If you cannot make a justified decision at this point you may need to go back and review the previous steps.”

    • The Potter Box a good guide to follow,thanks sir. But sometimes in a busy newsroom situation you find yourself in a tight spot and without much time. And most Editors may not have even come across Potter Box.

      • I am not saying using such models all the time. That would be impractical. However, there are situations like that one where all editors have to sit and make a decision. That is when known models ought to be applied. Its just like you never use a tool without reading its manual. Using such highly contraversial photos without the due dilligence will cause such apologetics and controversy. They can be avoided.

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