In some ways, this exercise is very similar to the last. We are asked to review an image of an impending tragedy and to comment on the ethics of the photographer. The image is one showing a man standing on the tracks of the New York subway with a train bearing down on him. The man, Ki Suk Han, was killed moments later. The image caused uproar when it was published shortly afterwards with the banner title’ This man is about to die’, with people in particular focussing on the photographer’s motives. Apparently, the photographer, an off-duty photojournalist just lifted his camera when he saw what was happening with the aim of letting the train driver know there was a problem with his flash, and took the photos almost on autopilot. Subsequent studies of what happened established that Mr Han had been deliberately pushed off the platform by an agitated man who had been bothering other passengers, and whom Mr Han had attempted to calm down. It later turned out that this man had severe mental health issues.
Public outrage seems to have focussed on two aspects of the New York Times front page story, which included the image. Firstly, should they have bought the photograph and published it, and secondly was the motivation of the photographer questionable? It is a strange fact of modern life that we tend to focus our fury on people other than the perpetrator, and this is what seems to have happened here. The man who actually caused the accident is invisible in the image and in much of the reporting, while the photographer was roundly condemned for a variety of failings, including not trying to help the victim (although nobody else did either) and making money from his death. Questions were also asked about whether the New York Times had broken the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and in particular the section on Minimizing Harm. Having looked at this, I would argue that there is scope for concern about this element of this Code, namely that journalists should
- Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if other do.
My own reaction to the image was to consider it in relation to other similar images, and the internet is rife with these. Almost any of the images in this series – 45 haunting photos of people in their final moments before death has the same issues as the NYT one and adverts for series such as this regularly turn up on my own Facebook timeline. To me, the issue stems from the NYT’s decision to print the photograph and to run the story, not with the photographer who made the image. That person was acting automatically, and could not realistically have helped the man, but the NYT publishing of the image and story were, in my view, pandering to lurid curiosity rather than providing useful news. The fact that it was also the NYT is relevant – it is a broadsheet newspaper that considers itself to be at the more intellectual end of the journalistic range. If the National Enquirer had published it, I don’t believe there would have been a similar outcry.