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Frank 1Creative Commons/Ian MuttooBY RUSSELL FRANK

 

Two men got into an argument on a subway platform in midtown Manhattan at midday in December 2012. Naeem Davis, 30, described as a street vendor, was accused of shoving Ki Suk Han, 58, onto the tracks just as a train was pulling into the station. Witnesses said several people ran down the platform to help Han, freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi among them, but none could get there in time.

Abbasi said when he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to reach the victim he repeatedly used his camera’s flash to signal to the train driver to stop. He also clicked off a number of shots. A doctor on the platform was unable to revive Han.

Abbasi brought his photos to the New York Post, which published one of them on the next day’s front page along with the screamer headline, “DOOMED: Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.” The photo shows Han standing on the tracks with his arms on the platform, his head turned toward the train that is bearing down on him. The driver of the train appears to be looking at him.

Before the age of online journalism we would have known how viewers reacted to the Post’s front page from a handful of presumably representative letters received by the editor. Media critics and journalism scholars might have discussed the ethics issues raised by the coverage in columns and news stories in newspapers, journalism trade magazines and scholarly journals. Scholars who wanted to find out how the public felt about the coverage would have had to design surveys or questionnaires. Now we can find out what hundreds of viewers think almost as soon as the news content itself is posted, via the online comments section appended to the story on the news outlet’s Website.

At this writing, more than two years after the incident, the pseudonymous comments appended to “DOOMED” are no longer accessible on the Post’s Website so I am unable to say exactly how many were posted. (I did, however, copy some of the more pungent ones onto PowerPoint slides at the time to discuss with my students, and will insert those comments at intervals in this article.) At the New York Times Website, meanwhile, one can still examine reader reactions to stories about the Post’s front page. A news story about the incident published the same day as the Post’s “DOOMED” front page is followed by 436 comments (Wilson and Krieger, 2012). Other Times-related blogs followed: Andy Newman’s (2012) “City Room” blog, also posted that day, has 159 comments attached to it. Media writer David Carr’s (2012) discussion of the incident, published the day after, is followed by 137 comments.

Not surprisingly, many of the commenters were horrified by what they had seen. Some were simply horrified by the manner in which Ki Suk Han died. Some were horrified that no one on the platform came to Han’s rescue. Some were horrified that Abbasi, the photographer, did not come to Han’s rescue. Some were horrified by the Post’s decision to publish Abbasi’s photo, or by the paper’s decision to put it on the front page, or by its choice of words in the headline. And some, responding to the censorious comments of others, suggested that it takes rare presence of mind to perform heroic actions, that apathy, cowardice and greed are facts of life, however unpleasant, and that such high-profile coverage could lead to increased safety, either through structural change or heightened awareness of the dangers. A secondary debate centered on the decisions of other news organizations to republish the Post’s front page to illustrate discussions of the Post’s coverage. Here is a closer look at the controversy:

 

Reaction to “DOOMED”: “How can you stand there and do nothing?”

In his study of reporter reactions to the comments appended to their stories, Santana (2011) includes greater awareness of reader sensitivity to bias or racially charged language among the ways in which such comments might influence future news coverage, but he doesn't specifically mention impacts on ethical decision-making. Nor has anyone else, to my knowledge, studied online forums as mechanisms for allowing readers to become part of the conversation when it comes to journalism ethics. But a story like “DOOMED” is an extreme example of readers having as much or more to say about the behavior of the journalists than about what actually happened. Here is one of the comments I saved from the Post: “What a sad state of affairs when we as a people care more about trying to get a shot of a tragedy, instead of trying to help. How could you stand there and do nothing?”

In response to this first wave of criticism, the Post asked Abbasi (2012) to write an account of his actions. The photographer wrote that 22 seconds elapsed from the time he heard shouting to the moment when Han was hit by the train—not enough time for him to pull the “doomed” man to safety. He also claimed that his camera “wasn’t even set to the right settings” and that he “had no idea what I was shooting.” Many readers remained skeptical. Some thought 22 seconds was plenty of time to attempt a rescue. Others thought the quality of the image published in the Post suggested that Abbasi did indeed have time to adjust his camera and compose the shot.

Photojournalists and journalism professors quoted on Gawker.com (2012) were inclined to give Abbasi the benefit of the doubt. The dominant view was that saving a life should take priority over taking a photo, but that it was not clear whether Abbasi could have gotten to the victim in time.

Since it is hard to know whether Abbasi had enough time either to save Han’s life or make a professional-quality photograph, many commentators turned their attention to the role of the gatekeepers—to the Post’s editors’ more calculated decision to publish the photo. As New York Times columnist David Carr (2012) put it, “That part didn’t happen quickly. The treatment of the photo was driven by a moral and commercial calculus that was sickening to behold.” A representative reader comment from the Post: “This picture should never have been published. This is the last image his family and friends will have to remember him by. It’s disgusting how low we have sunk as a society.”

Some readers complained about how “graphic” the image was, but as Carr pointed out, the image wasn’t graphic at all in the usual sense: We weren’t seeing the body after it had been mangled by the train, but before. Carr compared “DOOMED” to photos of the “jumpers”—the people who plummeted from the upper floors of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Zelizer (2010) suggests that viewers find such “about-to-die” photos less offensive than photos of corpses, but the “before” images possess a horror all their own: They force viewers to imagine what it would be like to know that one is about to die. Abbasi’s photo also allowed people to put themselves in the train driver’s place and imagine what it would be like to know one is about to kill someone.

Debates over whether a graphic photo or account should be published often hinge on whether there is a public benefit that offsets or outweighs the physical revulsion and emotional distress such coverage may inflict on strangers to the victims, to say nothing of the victims’ loved ones. In the case of catastrophic earthquakes, storms and famines, vivid images and descriptions can move the public to contribute to relief efforts. In the case of genocide, torture, terrorism and other gross abuses of human rights, learning of the evils can generate the kind of public outcry that prompts governments to intervene. In the case of war, awareness of civilian and military casualties can prompt the public, in whose name the war is being fought, to question whether the stated objectives are worth the sacrifices.

On the local level, graphic pictures and stories about accidental deaths can raise awareness of hazards or spur action to reduce hazards. The merits of these arguments in defense of graphic treatment of local tragedy are often negated by the tendency of the public to grieve more for local victims (Emmett, 2010). In 2001, for example, the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, incurred the wrath of readers when it ran a not-very-graphic photo of the body of a local student who had been run over by a bus. The day before, the paper got no reaction to a far bloodier photo of a victim of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

A number of defenders of the Post’s decision argued that the photo of the “doomed” man would stimulate discussion of subway platform safety and whether the dangers of falling or being pushed onto the tracks warrant installation of some sort of guardrail. A few examples saved from the Post:

Similar arguments were advanced in defense of Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of a young woman about to fall to her death when her building’s fire escape collapsed during a rescue attempt from a Boston fire in 1975 (high time those slumlords were forced to fix those deathtraps!); and in defense of John Harte’s 1985 photo for the Bakersfield Californian of a family grieving over the body of a 5-year-old drowning victim. These situations sound similar, yet the outcry over “DOOMED” seems to have been greater. Why? Here are five possibilities:

1. Location: To the extent that New York is the media capital of America, it stands to reason that events that happen in New York are going to be more closely scrutinized than events that happen elsewhere. Then too, the nature of the incident seemed to conform to and confirm popular stereotypes of New York as a place where everyone is too busy and self-absorbed to get involved with a stranger, even in a life-or-death situation. Consider these comments:

Some New Yorkers came to the defense of their city, proposing that the time and location—midday, midtown—made it likely that the people on the platform were tourists rather than locals. Several readers invoked the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, whose cries for help were supposedly ignored by her neighbors; others pointed out that the story of Genovese’s callous neighbors has been debunked.

2. Outlet Proliferation: Cyberspace offers many more platforms for response than were available in 1975 or 1985.

3. That Headline: Some commenters found Abbasi’s photo less objectionable than the Post’s headline:

4. Imminent Danger: It can be argued that standing on a subway platform is not as dangerous as swimming in a reservoir, which is not as dangerous as standing on a broken fire escape. There is therefore greater urgency to address an imminent danger than to increase awareness of a potential hazard or to improve safety. These may sound like hair-splitting differences, but weighed against the unhappiness such images cause, only an urgent need for action is enough, apparently, to tip the scales in favor of publication.

5. Identification: A relatively small number of people jump off roofs or bridges, or are the victims of terrorists or assassins, or must use the fire escape to exit a burning building. But more than 5 million people ride the New York City subway every weekday. For even the most jaded of them, the experience has a hellish quality: the rats scurrying along the tracks between train arrivals, the way the trains roar into the station out of the blackness, the surge of bodies pressing toward the tracks as the train slows. It is hard to imagine more of a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I scenario than this one.

 

“Heartless pic in classless tab”: Is the phrase “tabloid ethics” an oxymoron?

While some readers condemned the Post in the strongest possible terms (“that absolute RAG, PIECE OF TRASH paper”; “well known cesspool of bottom feeding”), others thought it was silly even to expect ethical journalism from such a newspaper. Sensationalism is thought to be synonymous with tabloid journalism, after all. For all the pious condemnations of the insensitive, the lurid or the macabre, we humans clearly have what Sontag (2003: 97) calls “an innate tropism toward the gruesome.” Tabloid journalism would not exist if there weren’t a market for it.

The real question, in the minds of some, was why did the New York Times (and other supposedly more respectable outlets) then reprint the Post’s front page? We have seen this kind of thing before. After the National Enquirer ran a photo of Whitney Houston in her casket in February 2012, several news outlets illustrated their stories about the outcry with the selfsame photo. When violent protests erupted over the publication of a cartoon of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper in 2005, a number of American papers reprinted the cartoon to show what the fuss was about.

The obvious rationale for printing a controversial image is that if we’re going to talk about the ethics of printing the offending item, we need to examine it. But critics find such practices hypocritical, even cynical: One gets to attract viewers with the image and condemn its use at the same time:

Even David Carr (2012) took issue with his own paper: “If the image is not already burned into your skull, it can be found all over the Web, including in The New York Times’s City Room blog. We chose not to reproduce it here because tut-tutting about a salacious photo while enjoying the benefits of its replication seems inappropriate.”

 

Conclusion

Most photos of tragedies are taken after the fact. Photographers arrive after the tornado touched down or the bomb exploded or the train wrecked, not before. Viewers may question whether a photo of a victim shows a lack of respect for the dead and for the sensibilities of the victim’s loved ones, or whether a photo of grieving loved ones invades their privacy. But only a photo of a tragedy that is about to happen raises questions about whether the photographer could have done something to prevent it (in the case of the plummeting fire escape or the “jumpers” at the World Trade Center, clearly not).

The unpredictability of tragedy has made such photos relatively rare. R. Umar Abbasi hadn’t been assigned to cover the death of Ki Suk Han. He just happened to be there when it happened. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras and the willingness of news organizations to use photos taken by non-journalists who witness tragedies make it likely that we will see more such photos in the future, and therefore more professional and amateur media criticism of the photographers’ actions.

Such is the emotional impact of these photos that these photographers will be called to account, as was Abbasi. And such is the emotional impact of these photos that the picture takers’ attempts to explain that they did help, or tried to help, or weren’t able to help, will fall on deaf ears. Whatever the photographer did or didn’t do, the fact of the image itself tells us that he spent at least part of the time making that image. As Sontag (2003: 76) writes, “photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticized if it seems ‘aesthetic’; that is, too much like art.”

Obviously, we would know nothing of a photographer’s presence or actions at the scene of a tragedy if a news outlet declined to publish the photo. Here, the decision makers are called to account. The rationale usually centers on the idea of “bearing witness.” The words sound both high-minded and tough-minded: We don't like seeing this nasty stuff any more than you do but it’s our job to bring it to your attention so that you, the public, can respond as befits the situation—by demanding change, comforting the afflicted, assigning blame or what have you. But in this era of increasing skepticism about the mainstream media’s motives, the public may be inclined to view bearing witness as so much window dressing on what is essentially gawking or rubbernecking. Such protestations can sound particularly hollow when coming from a tabloid like the New York Post. Accuse the paper’s management of just trying to “sell papers,” and they would probably say, “Of course we’re just trying to sell papers!”

And yet, the deeper I read into reader responses to the Post’s ghastly front page, the more I began to think that there was something to the “bearing witness” argument after all. Readers came up with no end of suggestions for preventing future deaths on the tracks: barriers between the platform and the tracks, such as other cities have on their transit systems; sensors on the trains; more niches or wells for a person caught on the tracks to press himself into when a train goes by; more signage telling passengers what to do if they fall onto the tracks or see someone fall onto the tracks. Arguments raged about which of these solutions were feasible in terms of available funds and available technology, but these seemed like good arguments to have.

Within two months of Han’s death (which was followed by another death on the tracks a few weeks later), the New York Times reported that the Metropolitan Transit Authority was increasing the frequency of announcements warning riders to stand clear (Flegenheimer, 2013a) and considering installing sensors that would detect a person’s presence on the tracks (Flegenheimer, 2013b). Platform doors would cost at least $1 billion. Even if none of the fixes were to be implemented, there is little question that as a result of “DOOMED” and the ensuing controversy over it, mass transit users in New York and beyond became aware as never before about the dangers of standing too close to the tracks.

All ethics discussions come down to the question of harm. It is not clear how much harm “DOOMED” did to those who saw it—including Han’s loved ones, for whom the image of him about to die may have been dwarfed by the fact of his death itself. A case can be made that the front page highlighting of the issue of subway platform safety did some good. Whether it did the Post or the news media in general any good is another question, but not of ethics. Hlavach and Freivogel (2011) highlight the ways in which anonymous and unscreened reader comments detract from a news organization’s commitment to “unbiased factual information.” But here is a case where the readers might have been more thoughtful than the journalists.

 

 

References

Abbasi, R. Umar. (2012). “Anguished Fotog: Critics Are Unfair to Condemn Me,” New York Post, 5 December. Retrieved from: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/anguished_fotog_critics_are_unfair_s4bWwIXfZlBR6wi2tQALyH

Carr, David. (2012). “Train Wreck: The New York Post’s Subway Cover,” New York Times, 5 December. Retrieved from: http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/train-wreck-the-new-york-posts-subway-cover/

Emmett, Arielle. (2010). “Too Graphic?” American Journalism Review 32(1).

Flegenheimer, Matt. (2013a). “On Subway Platforms, More Warnings for Riders,” New York Times, 11 January. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/12/nyregion/after-2-deaths-subway-riders-hear-more-warnings-to-stand-clear.html

Flegenheimer, Matt. (2013b). “M.T.A. Cites $1 Billion Cost to Install Gates on Subway Platforms,” New York Times, 28 January. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/29/nyregion/mta-says-subway-platform-gates-could-cost-1-billion.html

Gawker.com. (2012). “Would You Have Taken the Post Subway Photo?: Pulitzer-winning Photographers Respond.” Retrieved from: http://gawker.com/5965659/would-you-have-taken-the-post-subway-photo-pulitzer+winning-photographers-respond

Hlavach, Laura and Freivogel, William H. (2011). “Ethical Implications of Anonymous Comments Posted to Online News Stories,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 26(1): 21-37.

Newman, Andy. (2012). “Should This Subway Photo Have Been Published?” New York Times, 4 December. Retrieved from: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/should-this-subway-photo-have-been-published/

Santana, Arturo. (2011). “Online Readers’ Comments Represent New Opinion Pipeline,” Newspaper Research Journal 32(3): 66-81.

Sontag, Susan. (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Wilson, Michael and Krieger, Daniel. (2012). “After Fatal Subway Shove, Asking: Were There No Heroes?” New York Times, 4 December. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/nyregion/suspect-in-fatal-subway-push-is-in-custody.html?_r=0

Zelizer, Barbie. (2010). About to Die: How News Images Move the Public. New York: Oxford University Press.