Guest Commentary

Should journalists have told the story of drowned immigrant and daughter with photo?

The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, on June 24, 2019, after they drowned trying to cross the river to Brownsville, Texas. Martinez’ wife, Tania told Mexican authorities she watched her husband and child disappear in the strong current.
The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, on June 24, 2019, after they drowned trying to cross the river to Brownsville, Texas. Martinez’ wife, Tania told Mexican authorities she watched her husband and child disappear in the strong current. The Associated Press

“The first time I saw the picture, I looked away quickly, shocked. The second time I saw it, tears welled up in my eyes.”

While these words accurately describe my reaction to seeing the awful photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, whose bodies had washed up along the Rio Grande’s shores a few weeks ago, they were in fact written in 2015, and chronicled my reaction to the photo of Alyan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned and washed ashore in Turkey.

Our humanity, and our journalistic principles, are continually being challenged by the plight of migrants. As journalists, we must incessantly, vigilantly question whether (and how) to use shocking, horrifying photos like these.

In hindsight, in Alyan’s case, the right thing may have been to publish the photo, which generated a mountain of both increased interest in and donations for Syrian refugees. For example, according to Reuters: “The average number of daily donations to a Syrian refugee fund run by the Swedish Red Cross rose 100-fold. Before the photo circulated, the charity received fewer than 1,000 donations in a day; afterwards, it rose to almost 14,000.”

Before any of this was known, Alyan’s photo ignited debates in newsrooms about the appropriateness of using the image. Robert Mackey, writing in The New York Times said, “A number of reporters argued forcefully that is was necessary to confront the public with the human toll of the war in Syria, and the impact of policies that make it difficult for refugees to find asylum in Europe. But many editors were concerned about shocking their readers and wanted to avoid the appearance of trafficking in sensational images for profit.”

Those same issues frame the debate about the Ramirez photo. On one hand, there’s an understandable desire to shock complacent readers about the grim reality on the U.S. southern border. On the other, there’s the concern about sensationalizing the story and exploiting its victims.

A strong case can be made for using the photo. “It’s irresponsible for a news organization to shield its audience from hard truths,” Kelly McBride wrote at Poynter.org. “No matter what your political views on immigration are, the fact that so many children are suffering because of decisions made by the U.S. government is something every American should take note of.”

The counter-argument is primarily concerned about how the picture was used. NAHJ, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, slammed the Associated Press for tweeting the Ramirez photo, which it called “exploitative and dehumanizing.” A NAHJ statement said it was especially egregious that it was used on Twitter, which means that users could just stumble upon the image which was “thrust into news feeds without discretion for the viewers or the migrant family the Associated Press exploited.”

Both the NAHJ and McBride are right.

If accuracy is our bedrock principle, then how can this tragedy be told without the photo? If responsible peace journalism gives voice to the voiceless, the photo is necessary to animate the tragedy of the Ramirez family and of the other 6,915 migrants who died along the border between 1998 and 2016.

That said, NAHJ is correct that slipping the Ramirez photo into people’s social media feeds without letting them decide if they want to see it is irresponsible. Many news outlets were more careful with the Ramirez photo. “NPR didn’t lead with photo, but website readers see the image as they scroll down.,” wrote McBride. Also, “The Los Angeles Times didn’t use the image on its homepage, but it runs at the top of the story.”

News organizations must first decide if photos like those of Alyan Kurdi and Oscar and Valeria Ramirez are needlessly sensational, or are instead necessary for a complete understanding of the story. Then journalists must decide if the photo accurately reflects the story, or instead relies on or reinforces stereotypes, racism, sexism or xenophobia. If the photo is accurate and necessary, then it should be used, though readers must be allowed to choose for themselves if they want to see it.

Steven Youngblood, author of Peace Journalism Principles and Practices, is the director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University, where he is an associate professor. He will be moderating a free discussion about the subject of media use of horrifying images on July 25 in North Kansas City. For more information, and to register for the International Relations Council-sponsored event, visit this link on irckc.org.

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