Making Sense of the Media
4:21 pm
Wed December 5, 2012

"No Journalistic Purpose" for New York Post Subway Death Photo

Kelly McBride runs the Sense-making Project at the Poynter Institute.
Kelly McBride runs the Sense-making Project at the Poynter Institute.

You may have heard about it already -- a disturbing photo of a man, just pushed in front of a subway, seconds from his death.

The New York Post published the photo on the front page with the headline, "Doomed."

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's Sense-making Project says this boils down to two ethical questions:

1. When should a photographer put the camera down and try to help a potential victim?

2. When should newspapers print disturbing photos?

The photographer says he tried to strobe his camera flash to warn the subway driver. McBride says we shouldn't rush to judge that man.

"Every single one of us could have been that photographer on the subway," she said, because most of our phones can take and transmit photos.

She says she advises photographers and journalists in similar situations like this:  "If someone's death or serious injury is imminent, and you're the most qualified person to help, then you do have a moral obligation to do what you can.

"It's a tough decision to make," she said.

She says it is a lot easier to criticize the New York Post for running the story at all.

Some disturbing photos, such as Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of children running from the chemical attacks in Vietnam, serve a larger purpose.

If someone's death or serious injury is imminent, and you're the most qualified person to help, then you do have a moral obligation to do what you can.

In this case, she finds no motivation except a twisted kind of voyeurism.

"There's no journalistic purpose in this particular photo," she said. "It's merely horrifying."

These issues of images and ethics are becoming more difficult and widespread in the digital era, she says.

"These ethical issues that we've always faced as journalists are now something the entire society has to face," she said.

McBride discusses these issues in much more depth in an essay on the Poynter.org website.