The Only Way is Ethics: When is it right to publish a distressing image?

The decision to publish an image is not influenced by how much it has been shared online

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There are generally two broad reasons why we might publish material that would otherwise raise ethical concerns: the first is that it serves a wider public interest; the second is that the information is already established in the public domain. Neither justification is entirely black or white.

Reliance on the public domain argument is particularly fraught. It cannot be adequate for a responsible media organisation to publish highly intrusive material just because there is some reference to it in a dark corner of the internet. On the other hand, if information is being widely talked about on Twitter, for instance, that might provide a defence for onward publication in the mainstream.

When social media started to take over the world a decade or so ago, there were whispers about the possibility that less scrupulous journalists might seek to indulge in a kind of information laundering. To create a justification for publishing information that would in normal circumstances be invasive, they would leak it quietly online and, once it had done the rounds, it would pop up in the paper, defended on the grounds that it was already commonly known by internet users. Whether that ever happened in practice, I just don’t know.

On Friday I was asked by a reporter from the BBC whether our decision to publish the haunting image of Aylan al-Kurdi last week was at least partially encouraged by it having been widely shared on Twitter. In the sense that its appearance on social media provided a justification in and of itself, the answer was certainly no. We published the image online and in print because we believed it was of a different order to pictures we have seen before of the refugee crisis – and was one that might at last lead to action by politicians. There was a manifest public interest in showing the horrific reality of human desperation.

By contrast, a week earlier we had decided not to publish many of the available images – and footage – showing the murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward in the US. Like the haunting picture of Aylan, material showing the killings of the Virginia journalists was all over Twitter. Yet that did not seem to us to justify re-publication since we did not believe there was an overriding need to show people in the moments of their death.

Of course there are times when the public availability of information online helps us to justify our own use of it: but that cannot be the only consideration. Indeed, quite aside from questions of good taste and intrusion, seeing something on social media doesn’t make it true. Newspapers, ultimately, are curated spaces with editing at their heart. We should not cede the responsibility for making good decisions by simply replicating the free-for-all we can see on Twitter and elsewhere.

Call for diversity is not discrimination

A handful of readers expressed concern about a recent comment piece by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, which suggested that, despite the many qualities of Jeremy Corbyn, the last thing British politics needs is another white male leading a political party.

Some argued that this amounted to discrimination against Corbyn on the grounds of race and gender. Yet in fact, the column was setting out a general view about the need for greater diversity at the head of political parties: it was not a personal attack on Corbyn himself for being white or a man. If the law or regulatory codes prohibited the publication of such opinions, there would surely be an undue restriction on freedom of expression.