When do you run a disturbing photo?

This photo (and cover headlines) from the New York Post earlier this week have been attracting an enormous amount of attention.  Post freelancer R. Umar Abbasi took the photo of Ki Suk Han, who was pushed in front of the oncoming subway by a man who was reportedly harassing others at the station.

Reaction to the tabloid’s cover was immediate.  As would be expected, the sensational headline was seen by most as inappropriate.  But what about the photo?  Should it have been published at all?  Or should it have even been taken?  Why didn’t the photographer try to save the poor man?

I first heard about this cover and the news that led to it from a UPI news service blog that raised many of these questions.

Ben Jacobs, writing for The Daily Download, argues that the photo was worth publishing: “The photograph’s power came simply from the sheer visual impact of the moment…. [T]his cover will linger through history and its arresting image will be remembered for decades to come.”

Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, writes that she often defends the publication of graphic photos but says that this one doesn’t pass the test.

Kelly McBride, who writes about ethics for the Poynter Institute, examines the question of whether the photographer should have tried to have rescue the man rather than taking pictures.  She notes that while it is difficult to judge the actions of the photographer, it’s easier to judge the decisions made by New York Post editors to run the photo. Poynter photo faculty member Kenny Irby wrote in an e-mail that the Post had several good alternatives to choose from other than the incredibly disturbing photo that they published.

For what it’s worth, Abbasi (the photographer) says that he could not have rescued the man and that he fired off his flash to warn the train driver.  And other tabloid photographers have defended Abbasi for taking the photo (though several of them raised questions as to whether the Post ought to have published it.)

CNN’s media reporter Howard Kurtz has a good video up at The Daily Download where he talks about the photo.  He hits on what I think is the key conflict, that while the photo was “cheap and sensational,” it was “also newsworthy.”

So here are my questions for you:

  • Would you have taken the picture?  Why or why not?  If you knew for certain that you couldn’t rescue the man, would that make a difference in your decision?
  • Should the New York Post have published the photo?  Why or why not? Did publishing the photo serve any larger purpose?
  • Could you construct an ethical argument for and an argument against publishing the photo?
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