When I first saw the image, it was like a sucker punch to the gut. It knocked the wind out of me.
I could almost hear my heart break, and I sat at my desk in front of my computer and wept.
I’m sure you know the image I’m talking about. It was all over the Internet the first week of September, that picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a refugee from the hell that’s broken loose in his home of Kobani, Syria, drowned on a Turkish beach.
Compared to the images of live decapitations, incinerated soldiers and stacked corpses that are so easily accessible these days, the photo of little Aylan was actually rather mild. No blood, no mutilation. He looked almost peaceful lying there in his red t-shirt, his little blue shorts, his tiny sneakers, his left hand tuned palm-up, almost as though asleep on the sand. It was only the cold wavelets lapping against his face that told you this was a dead child.
But yet …
The image was extremely powerful, in more ways than one. Emotionally, it was just deeply, profoundly sad. Many people I spoke to reacted as I did, with the tears of a grieving parent. Again and again I heard, “He could have been my child.” We wept for the raw human tragedy of it.
The photo also shocked the global conscience. The Syrian civil war has been steadily escalating for five years, talking a growing toll in blood and displaced lives. And Syria has been the source of many appalling photos over that time: children poisoned with chemical weapons, cities reduced to rubble, summary executions, disembowelments and more. It’s hard to say why this particular image broke through the impotent resignation of the international community and prompted European nations to agree to take in large numbers of refugees from Syria, Libya and other crisis points around the Mediterranean Sea.
The photos of little Aylan also triggered a robust media debate over the wisdom of publishing such a disturbing image. Many editors had misgivings, fearing they could be seen as exploiting a tragedy. Still others felt it was important for the world to see what was going on.
The Independent, a UK-based newspaper, put the image on their front page, saying, “The Independent has taken the decision to publish these images because, among the often glib words about the “ongoing migrant crisis”, it is all too easy to forget the reality of the desperate situation facing many refugees.”
Many others agreed that the picture, distressing as it was, needed to be seen. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times both published the image. L.A. Times assistant managing editor Kim Murphy told the New York Times that there had been a consensus among editors there.
“The image is not offensive, it is not gory, it is not tasteless — it is merely heartbreaking, and stark testimony of an unfolding human tragedy that is playing out in Syria, Turkey and Europe, often unwitnessed,” she said. “We have written stories about hundreds of migrants dead in capsized boats, sweltering trucks, lonely rail lines, but it took a tiny boy on a beach to really bring it home to those readers who may not yet have grasped the magnitude of the migrant crisis.”
The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other U.S. news outlets, including NPR, took a more nuanced approach, at least at first. They used other, less shocking images of young Aylan taken at the same time as the face-down-on-the beach image. The Times later reversed course. Times executive editor Dean Baquet said, “We debated it, but ultimately we chose to run a powerful version of this photo because it brings home the enormity of this tragedy.”
Some online news outlets pixelated Aylan’s image. Others chose not to run the photos at all. Somewhat surprisingly, Vox Media – known for its brash reporting style – was among them. Vox editorial director Max Fisher said he was uncomfortable with the way the image was becoming an internet meme.
“I understand the argument for running the photo as a way to raise awareness and call attention to the severity of the refugee crisis, and I don’t begrudge outlets that did,” he told the New York Times, “but I ultimately I decided against running it because the child in that photo can’t consent to becoming a symbol.” Fisher also wrote an article skewering the British tabloid press for beating the anti-immigration drum for years, then plastering the dead refugee child across their front pages. “That’s not compassion,” he wrote. “It’s voyeurism.”
The journalistic debate ran hot on Twitter, as well. Dima S., an Egyptian blogger, tweeted, “Hard to be online anymore. Respect the dead. Find out their name, origin, struggle, story anything but please respect the sacred bodies.”
But Peter Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch, tweeted, “What is offensive is dead kids washing up on our beaches when deaths could have been prevented by EU action, not the pictures themselves.”
However you feel about it, the changing mediascape means the old newspaper editorial standards, which protected readers from horrific images, is in tatters. Increasingly, news outlets feel there’s more than shock value in showing their readers the unvarnished reality of the events they cover.
And especially now — after worldwide circulation of the photos of Aylan Kurdi triggered quick reaction from governments, who suddenly opened their doors to the flood of refugees — you as a news consumer can expect going forward to be confronted again and again with images of the ugly truth.
Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for nearly 20 years. After covering the environment in Seattle, then reporting on European issues from France, he’s returned to JPR, turning his talents to covering the stories that are important to the people of this very special region.