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The Ethics Behind Publishing Graphic Images of Natural Disasters in Face to Face with Tragedy

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An editorial written by New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt and a piece written by doctoral candidate Manoucheka Celeste both examine the ethics behind publishing graphic images of natural disasters. Each piece uniquely examines different perspectives of the issue, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions about whether or not it is right to publish these photos. It is common for the American media to quickly portray other countries’ tragedies graphically, but not tragedies of its own people. American media finds it ethical to show graphic photos of people in natural disasters in other countries, but not of Americans, because they don’t want to offend Americans with graphic photos of their own kin.

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The editorial “Face to Face with Tragedy”, written by Clark Hoyt, defends the New York Time’s right to publish graphic photos. Times photographer Damon Winter shot photos of the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. These photos received both praise and backlash; from readers being moved by the emotional context to criticism that the photos were “exploitative and sensationalistic” (Ramage, Bean, & Johnson, 2015). These photos included images of a woman looking at bodies in the street, a grieving father, and a single dead man covered in debris. Many readers were offended by these graphic photos, as reader Randy Stebbins from Louisiana wrote that the images were “unnecessary, unethical, unkind, and inhumane” (Ramage, et al., 2015). Some readers were angry that the New York Times neglected to report on the state of the Haitian people or to the extent of the damage, but instead felt that the newspaper glamorized on the people’s sufferings. Some readers were inspired by the photos to donate money, appreciating that the New York Times were showing the graphic scenes. This article primarily examines the ethics of publishing graphic photos of people in tragic situations, and attempts to justify the New York Time’s publishing of these graphic images in argument that they tell the story of a struggling nation.

Clark Hoyt’s position as editor of a highly popular magazine adds a great deal of credibility to his writing and allows him to take an authoritative tone to his piece. He builds reliability into this editorial by addressing several readers’ personal opinions about the subject. The article overall seems very fair and takes both perspectives into account, while still justifying the New York Time’s publishing actions. He shows his readers an editor’s viewpoint, which offers readers a new frame of reference as he discusses the selection process of the photos. The target audience of this editorial encompasses a wide range of readers, and Hoyt does a good job of making sure that everyone understands what he is saying by using short sentences and simple word choices. Rhetorically, Hoyt uses a logos approach to his writing, using logic to ensure that his readers understand exactly what he is trying to tell them.

The article “Disturbing Media Images of Haiti Earthquake Aftermath Tell Only Part of the Story”, written by a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington Manoucheka Celeste and published in the Seattle Times, takes on a more emotional perspective of publishing graphic images and raises questions about racism. Celeste argues that these images portray Haiti as a poor country, a “failed state” (Ramage, et al. 2015), as a place ridden with crime, poverty, and godlessness. This article explores the notion that media is constantly reinforcing stereotypes, even mentioning Pat Roberts publically declaring that the earthquake happened because of Haiti’s “deal with the devil” (Ramage, et al., 2015). This author demands dignity for the Haitian people simply because that is a human right, and seems angry that the media is taking away this dignity with it’s portrayal of this nation.

Manoucheka Celeste takes a very emotional approach to her writing. This is likely due to her background growing up as a Haitian, and she likely feels the tragedy deeper than one who did not grow up in Haiti. This also explains why she is so angry that the camera view is on the bad aspects of Haiti, simply because she knows all the good things about Haiti and wants everyone to know them too. She also stated within her article that she used to be a journalist, as well as her position as doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, which lends to her credibility and ability to write such a response to the graphic images being shown. Celeste’s piece was published three days after Hoyt’s editorial was published, which most likely allowed her more time to look at other graphic photos. She also mentions other forms of media in her writing, such as Pat Robertson and CNN, which further leads her to having a deeper perspective on the issue. Celeste has a smaller range of readers due to her piece being published in the Seattle Times, so she doesn’t have to worry about discussing everyone’s opinion and therefore only gives her own personal ideas. Celeste uses an ethos approach to her writing, allowing her readers to feel what she feels, and therefore giving them a more insightful perspective to the graphic images.

In the case of natural disasters, Americans themselves are almost hardly never mentioned in American media. It is uncommon to see photos of American bodies lying on the ground, or photos of starving and homeless American children. American media doesn’t often publish photos like these because it is afraid of scaring its readers and viewers. When magazines lose readers, the magazine publisher loses money. People who feel threatened by something usually like to stay away from whatever threatened them, and American media cannot afford this to happen to their companies.

Americans don’t want to see graphic images of their own kind. It scares them, and rightly so. When a reader views graphic images of starving and dying people in other countries, it doesn’t bring the issue to a homefront. When the issue is viewed as a problem in another country, it doesn’t seem so relevant to Americans. When the media shows an American starving child, it brings the possibility to the readers that they are next and readers don’t want to believe that. Americans have a mindset that nothing bad can happen to them, and the media can threaten this by showing images of their own people in devastating situations. This is why the American media finds it ethical to publish graphic photos of people in other countries, but not of it’s own citizens.

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It was very interesting to examine opinions of readers from very different perspectives on this issue of publishing graphic images. Clark Hoyt’s editorial justified the New York Time’s right to publish such photos, while Manoucheka Celeste’s piece was enraged at the racism that the American media used to portray Haiti’s people. It’s helpful to understand why American media doesn’t show graphic images of it’s own people, simply because it gives us a better understanding of the American mindset. This media helps us understand how readers are influenced by its ideas and lends a clearer understanding as to exactly why the news is allowed to publish such photos.

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