BOB GARFIELD: The angriest commentators on the MAGA hat episode insisted that the story, the real story that will not go away is about race and chronic disrespect–conscious or otherwise. The problem is surely not confined to American politics. On January 15th, in a Nairobi hotel office complex, al Shabaab militants shot and killed nearly two dozen people. Later in the day, leading the New York Times coverage of the incident was a graphic Associated Press photo of dead bodies slumped over at café tables. It didn't stay there for long. After readers told the Times that the prominent display of that image was inappropriate, editors placed it elsewhere in the article. Among those critics was Vox visuals editor Kainaz Amaria who said that the Times insensitivity in publishing that photo touched several nerves.
KAINAZ AMARIA: The initial nerve was, 'how could you publish an image of dead bodies during an ongoing attack before families could be notified.' The nerve was about privacy, was about dignity–especially to the dead–and what respect western media should offer them.
BOB GARFIELD: The Times came back for the sort of boilerplate explanation, 'we make decisions on a case by case basis etc, etc.' But you weren't buying it. You tweeted that the decision to run that image quote, 'stands alongside decades of visual coverage exploiting the pain and suffering of black and brown folks.'
KAINAZ AMARIA: The Times said and I quote, 'we want to be respectful to the victims and to the affected--those affected by the attack.' And then there's a but. 'But we also believe it's important to give our readers a clear picture of the horror of an attack like this.' I think the conversation that we should be having is much broader. A more introspective look at how media has viewed and documented and published the issues and lives around people from other countries, mostly developing countries, as opposed to how we have published images and viewed people from developed countries. Kenyans didn't wake up and one day see this image and decide, 'we need to push back and say take this image down because we feel like it's disrespectful.' This stands alongside decades of coverage of their own community–of different African countries. So for example, I've been a photojournalist for about 20 years, every time I go to photojournalism conferences I'm guaranteed to see carnage of black and brown bodies. And not the same amount of carnage of let's say white bodies. Why? Because photojournalism is defined by images of destruction death and violence towards the most vulnerable and the poorest people around the world.
BOB GARFIELD: What you're describing is not so much discrimination as just the incidence of raw violence that might be captured in photojournalism.
KAINAZ AMARIA: I think the American media is saying, 'listen, in order to shock the audience into caring about someone that far away, we need to show the most extreme otherwise, they won't care.' I hope that we would start thinking about why. What does that say about us as a society that in order for us to even begin to care about what's happening to a child or a community or a city across the world, that we have to be jarred by the most tragic, horrible, terrible image in order to care. I'm thinking of the image that the New York Times recently published of the young girl in Yemen. That image went around the world to show the horrors of famine that that country has experienced due to the conflict. That image is pushing up against the extremes of humanity. How far can we take this if we're sensitises an audience to expect that shock then we have to continue to shock.
BOB GARFIELD: There are limited resources to devote and limited Western audience interest. If it takes a shocking image to tell the story, under these circumstances is that not some justification.
KAINAZ AMARIA: I understand that news is news in the way we define news might not change overnight. But I think it's important to have the conversation of, 'how are we representing the news that coming out of other countries.' And are we telling a story that is not only informative to the American audience but responsible to the local audience and the local lives that are going through the news story?
BOB GARFIELD: These images, whether it's terror victims in a Nairobi cafe or a dead Syrian child refugee on a Turkish beach, it cuts through. It dramatizes stakes. It does trigger action. I actually have some sympathy for that argument--.
KAINAZ AMARIA: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: --but I notice we haven't seen many images of dead bodies in domestic mass shootings for example. No pulse pictures, no Sandy Hook pictures--
KAINAZ AMARIA: No pictures of people that have died from opioid use disorder. I think if you look at the coverage historically you will see a double standard. It goes a little deeper than simply breaking news and showing images of dead bodies. It is about 'who gets a full narrative of humanity in overall coverage.' The way that we approach international news often, is that we parachute into countries and we cover the most desperate situations. Our country and our people have a much wider spectrum of humanity and narrative.
BOB GARFIELD: The Times says it's going to review its protocols. Are there one or more guidelines that you would suggest to them, a checklist to go through before making a call like this?
KAINAZ AMARIA: Journalists, and particularly photojournalists who have to be in the field and witness these really difficult situations, have a tendency to look at their careers as sacrifice–and they do sacrifice. But they also see themselves as the good guys. And so when people are pointing fingers back at them saying how dare you make this image or how can you publish this image, the immediate reaction is, 'this is my job. I'm the good guy. I'm simply the conduit of this information.' The harder thing is to actually consider the fact that we could be doing some cumulative harm along the way. It is harder to interrogate that and then to create different editorial standards knowing and understanding that there is a chance that if we're telling the news in the way that we have continued to tell the news that we could be creating harm to the people in the stories. That's an opportunity for a newsroom to reflect, for an industry to reflect on the visual language that we've created and the way that we've framed stories and to start working on countering some of the narratives that have created racial stereotypes that have further marginalized communities, that have shown communities repeatedly is being impoverished, destitute, desperate, helpless. That is the hard work that needs to be done.
BOB GARFIELD: There's a word for that. I think they call it soul searching.
KAINAZ AMARIA: Soul searching, humility and listening. Listening is actually one of the core tenants of our profession–We go in, we listen, we learn, we feel and we report. Now, the people in our stories are asking us to do that as it relates to them and the way that we've been doing it for history. We owe them that.
BOB GARFIELD: Kainaz, thank you very much for joining us.
KAINAZ AMARIA: Thank you Bob. I really appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: Kainaz Amaria is a visuals editor at Vox.
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BOB GARFIELD: The New York Times declined to make an editor available to speak with us.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, immersed in otherness weighed down by the stupid things we think we know. This is On The Media.