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How to tell story of the dead without offending the living

By Susan Llewelyn LeachStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 19, 2005

As media coverage of the Asian tsunami slowly recedes from the front pages and the network news, the stark images linger: soldiers throwing bodies into mass graves, babies lined up in a morgue, excavators clawing the dead from piles of debris, a mother sitting by her lifeless child, her head thrown back in agony.

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Haunting in their intensity, the images and news footage of the largest natural disaster in decades have helped fuel a massive outpouring of aid and individual donations - and also a wave of criticism.

One Indian columnist calls the coverage a "corpse show." What happened to the restraint and sensitivity shown in the aftermath of 9/11? asks Ashok Malik in the national daily Indian Express. Other critics talk of "disaster porn" and point out that such images deprive the grieving of their privacy and the dead of their dignity.

Natural disasters, manmade calamities, and wars all produce imagery that can shock and sometimes offend. Yet how the media communicate the magnitude of an event depends heavily on who the audience is and how far they are from the unfolding drama. So can a tragedy on the scale of the tsunami - with 150,000 dead, and counting - be conveyed to an audience a world away without graphic images of death?

"As horrific as the photos are, the danger - particularly with the Western public - is of being able to turn away from poor, brown-skinned people and their suffering," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"So you have to err on the side of showing them more rather than less," showing them photos that are "outside normal parameters."

At the same time, she says, the media are obligated to minimize the harm. "Perhaps you don't show bodies that are identifiable, perhaps you don't show the most graphic images."

That ethical imperative was given broad interpretation in the tsunami's aftermath. Networks awash in footage that could have come from disaster movies were sometimes accused of double standards and broadcasting gratuitous gore, even as their ratings soared.

"In death, there should be no hierarchy," Jeremy Seabrook of The Guardian wrote Dec. 31. "But even as Sri Lankans wandered in numb disbelief through the corpses, British TV viewers were being warned that scenes they were about to witness might distress them."

The New York Times got heat from readers for a huge front-page photo Dec. 28 of a grief-stricken mother crouched beside rows of tiny children, all dead. Daniel Okrent, in his public editor's column, said many readers called it "exploitative," "disrespectful," and "unduly graphic." The managing editor responded that it was "an indescribably painful photograph, but one that was in all ways commensurate to the event."

In the first 24 hours, before the extent of the tragedy was known, coverage was more subdued. The images became more vivid only as the immensity of the tragedy became apparent and news outlets felt an urgency to communicate the enormity of what had happened, analysts say.

Yet that line between exploitation and depiction of reality can be a hair's breadth of opinion.

What creates public outcry, is people's belief that the media are using images as a marketing ploy - to get attention, entice them to buy the paper, or stop them from changing channels, says Susan Moeller, professor of media and international affairs at the University of Maryland.

"Even when the public is distressed by difficult images," she says, "if that news outlet is transparent about its reasons for running those pictures ... there has generally been very little outcry and protest, and often support for that ethical decision."

And sometimes the most graphic images are not the ones of those who died, argues McBride, but of those who lived. "That's what people find the most intrusive," she says, recalling a widely used photograph of a middle-aged man in agony as his child lies before him (see page 11). "What's disturbing about that picture is not the dead body. What's disturbing is the horrific grief that he's going through. It's an intensely private moment."