Should the New York Times have published a photo of US Libyan ambassador? The ethics of online photo galleries

Advance warning – this post will be mostly opinion on my part.  It’s based around something I found that I felt I had to get a few of my own thoughts down.

By now, most of us should be aware of recent events in the Middle-East, and the protests/ unrest that have apparently been sparked by a certain ‘film’…

One of the events that troubled me the most, and the one which I think has had the most media coverage so far, was the death of US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

A few days after, I was (still) reading about it, actively looking for new articles, when I came across this from the New York Times website.

It’s a response from their public editor, Margaret Sullivan, to reader concerns/ complaints about a photo the Time had run in an online photo gallery accompanying an article about overnight events in Libya (the attack on the US consulate)

Now – I hadn’t yet come across the Times article in question (I usually go to the ABC and BBC first), so off I went to check it out.

And I’ll freely admit I found the photo in question confronting and my initial reaction was that it crossed some sort of line.  And despite what I’m about to talk about, I still feel a tad uncomfortable about it, which is why I’m not going to link to the photo directly.  However, if you need to see the photo for yourself, it’s the final photograph in the picture gallery accompanying the story linked to at the beginning of Margaret Sullivan’s response.

In short, it’s an Agence France-Presse photograph showing “a man, reportedly unconscious, identified as Mr Stevens,” with severe blackening to the face (bruising or smoke damage, I’m unsure).
On the one hand, I understand the reader’s complaints highlighted in the Times’ response.  I think it would be distressing for members of Mr. Stevens family to see those images in the media and I also (partly) agree that the story may have been told well enough without that particular photo.

On the other hand, I can understand the Times‘ position.  There may be a clear “journalistic imperative” to running the photo – in many ways, the photo is a defining moment in the story the Times is trying to tell.  I don’t necessarily agree with the argument that they run photos of “Iraqis, Syrians” dead etc, so why not the ambassador.  While there are plenty of photos of civilian casualties, I don’t think many of them feature the victims in such a face-on close up.

However, what this incident does highlight for me is the benefit of an online photo gallery.  The photo was run “in the last position in the frequently updated gallery, where it would be less prominent.”  Thus, reporting the story online allowed the Times to still run their potentially controversial photo, but not give it the full emphasis that a front-page printing would – which I think would have been insensitive and certainly have overstepped the line.  Margaret Sullivan says she would not want to see the photo on the front page, where “its prominence and permanence would give it a different weight” (although, in my opinion, an online gallery makes it potentially even more permanent).

At the end of the day, while I still find photo’s publication slightly uncomfortable, I agree with the Times that an online gallery was the most suitable and ethical place to run it.  I certainly prefer it to running it on the front page, which I believe some other news organisations did.  It should also be noted that the Times did not go on and print it on the front page the next day.

As an aside, here’s the Timesresponse to a request from the US government to remove the photo – I think it’s good to see a news organisation “sticking to its guns” once it has made a decision (though if it had been an even more graphic photo, I think the removal request would be justified).


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