To publish or censor. Media is damned whatever it does

Di Thomas, Border Mail editor
Di Thomas, Border Mail editor

AFTER our story last week about the deaths of Lisa Turner, her son Jack Wallace and Peta Cox in a horrendous crash between a tanker trailer and two cars I received three letters and/or email messages/comments from those complaining about the photograph selected for the front page.

To be honest, I was surprised there were not more complaints.

These were photographs that evoked an audible gasp from people when they saw them; so shocking was the level of destruction it prompted an immediate understanding of the event that had taken place.

These were images you hoped were not seen by the families of those who lost their lives.

But should they be published?

In the hours after the crash, it was impossible to get a shot that captured its full scope; and so a decision was taken to fly over the scene.

The resulting images left no one in any doubt about what had occurred; they told the full story, conveying the horror of a dreadful crash that brutally and suddenly took three people’s lives.

It was for that reason we made the decision to publish and it is for that reason we carefully considered which image to use.

The photographer, the night editor and I consulted, selecting a photograph for the front page that conveyed the full force of the crash but without showing more than was necessary.

I know, and I understand why there are those who find it abhorrent the media would publish or broadcast any images that show a crash, an accident or a disaster.

So too, do I understand the degrees of separation by which many of our audiences judge what is published or broadcast.

The photograph of a fatal crash in the North East is far closer to home than an image of the dead in an overseas war far away and less likely to make it to the front page.

The extent to which the media shows human tragedy is a subject for frequent discussion and I think they are discussions we should continue to have.

Last month, the ABC’s Media Watch program explored the rise of social media in shifting the boundaries as to how the media showed images of the dead from Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, shot down over Ukraine.

Melbourne’s Herald Sun had pixelated its main photograph of the MH17 crash site so bodies of dead passengers could not be seen.

Many Australian newspapers chose to do the same or like The Border Mail, used a photograph of the crash scene that did not show any bodies, in line with our long-held policy.

But The Australian and The New York Times both chose to use images with the bodies of the passengers in clear view; and the ABC showed footage, without identifying people, of the body of a child and a hand.

The anger was immediate from those who believed it was outrageous victims could be seen in the photographs and footage and, given there were more than 30 Australians killed in the air crash.

Then there was another photograph on Monday, again on the front of The Australian, showing an Australian boy holding the severed head of a soldier in Syria, another photograph that understandably drew howls of protest from readers.

In neither case do I think what The Australian chose to do is necessarily wrong. Its editors made the assessment they had stronger reasons for showing both photographs than not publishing them.

I would not have published those images.

One reader of the MH17 coverage defended the decisions to publish as reflecting the need for the public to be shocked and outraged at those who would commit such violence.

Again, there I disagree. In the case of MH17 I don’t believe the showing of bodies fosters any greater understanding of the horror of that incident than a photograph of the wreckage does, together with some of the descriptions offered by the journalists who were reporting at the scene.