The only way is ethics: Reporting on the innocent victims of Iraq is a balancing act

The involvement of children is a story that has to be told, but cautiously

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The Independent Online

As the conflict in Iraq grows ever more bloody, no part of the country’s population seems unaffected. On Tuesday, images emerged of children allegedly being encouraged by Isis forces to  watch executions.

Across the divide, pictures from Baghdad showed children with guns apparently joining adult volunteers in the fight against extremists.

One image struck particularly hard. It shows a young boy, perhaps 10 years old, looking out of a bus window. He wears a football shirt and a childish grin. Leaning out of the next window is a man in a black T-shirt, shielding his eyes from the sun. The man carries a rifle; the boy holds a pistol, casually, but with his finger on the trigger.

Children are caught up in wars in hideous ways. They are killed and maimed; they become orphans and refugees; and they fight. It is important the media shows those realities, while at the same time judging on its own merits each piece of material proposed for publication.

In this instance, the photograph was so striking that The Independent believed its use was justified. It demonstrated, after all, the apparent willingness of parents and authorities to allow children to take up arms in the struggle for Iraq’s future.

But when it came to its position in the paper, there was a lengthy discussion. In particular, should we put it on the front page? It was certainly the kind of dominant image that a front page demands. Yet there were reservations.

There was something oddly insouciant about the boy’s facial expression that did not sit easily in the context of a picture that would be glanced at by shoppers. And, even though it was a miniscule chance, what if our front page – beamed as it regularly is around the world – somehow led to this child being held up by Isis as an exemplar of its enemy?

Taking a bold decision does not mean throwing caution to the wind: the image appeared, but on an inside page.

Dutch ‘gays-only' story struck a chord

Nobody likes falling for a hoax, least of all journalists. When it does happen questions are inevitably asked about the checks that were made before publication.

As we clarified last week, there is to be no gays-only  village in the Netherlands, as we had originally believed. Yet there are grounds for understanding why we were taken in.

The news that property developers were planning a village exclusively for LGBT people had been extensively picked up by Dutch media and reported at face value. The local mayor in Tilburg was in on the hoax and had given public statements about the plan. On social media and among advocacy groups the response was swift and the debate intense.

Additional checks of the background might (but only might) have discovered that the proposal was actually part of a campaign stunt.

But anyhow, was the story really so outlandish that alarm bells ought to have been ringing? There are plenty of retirement homes, for example, that specifically market themselves at gay people.

Moreover, the reason given for undertaking the project – to create an environment in which gay people could live without fear of harassment – struck a chord. In sum, the notion of an LGBT village is not so implausible, which is why the hoax was so successful.

We will remain vigilant for future scams. In the meantime, I hope soon to bring you news about the discovery of Hitler’s diaries.