Journalism and the Tsunami

Photojournalists and television correspondents who covered the tsunami’s aftermath in Southeast Asia faced difficult decisions: What images should they choose to convey the horror and devastation that surrounded them? How gruesome should such news images be? Is the image of a dead body too graphic for the public to see? What about a body that’s been wrapped in a plastic bag, or one under a plastic tarp and covered withdry ice? What about a mass grave? Is there a “line” that the news media shouldn’t cross when covering such disasters?

Several journalists who were in Aceh, Indonesia, during the weeks after the tsunami joined in a panel discussion titled “A critical look at the tsunami images.” Spencer Platt, a photographer for Getty Images, said he didn’t think the media should adhere to any strict line. While acknowledging that images shouldn’t be chosen for mere shock value, he said that photojournalists have a duty to show the public what is happening in the world, no matter how graphic the resulting images. “One hundred thousand people are dead,” he said. “That’s part of the story. This is their world. You need to be able to see it and talk about it.”

Platt presented a slideshow of some of the photos shot by Getty photographers in the tsunami zone. In one photo, a corpse’s decaying arm lies outstretched in the mud, swollen and twisted—the skin has turned a caramel-yellow color with purple slashes. Several photos showed arms and legs sticking out of coffins. Others showed landscapes completely destroyed, entire villages reduced to soggy rubble.

Platt noted that the American public is apparently comfortable watching violence in fictional form (in movies and on television), but when the images involve real people, then they are suddenly deemed unacceptable and in bad taste. “I have troubles with that,” he said.

By all accounts, dead bodies were everywhere in Aceh. They were piled on the backs of trucks lumbering down the road, jumbled together in mass graves, strewn here and there amid the wreckage. CBS news correspondent Barry Petersen noted that, as gruesome as many of the images from the tsunami zone were, they are in fact quite tame in comparison to the scenes that journalists witnessed “on the ground” in Aceh. “We get to carry all the images you will never see for the rest of our lives,” he said.

In response to the question of how graphic news images should be, ABC news correspondent Brian Rooney said that there is only so much viewers can absorb. Sometimes, he said, showing a less-graphic image that is a reflection of what happened tells a viewer much more than an image of a decaying body.