Newspapers have been hit hard in recent years. Even such venerable and influential papers as The New York Times have had to make sacrifices to stay afloat as revenue shrinks and as digital and online sources for news grow in popularity. So, from that perspective, perhaps it’s not too surprising that the editors of The New York Post would choose to publish a photo of a man about to be crushed by an oncoming subway on the front page of their December 4, 2012, edition. Such a shocking and controversial image would be bound to move newspapers.
This, of course, doesn’t make the decision any less abhorrent. (Which is why I won’t post the image here. It’s easy enough to find via Google.)
Here’s essentially what happened: 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han got into an altercation with 30-year-old Naeem Davis in a New York subway station. Davis then pushed Han off the platform and onto the tracks (he claims it was in self-defense). As Han struggled to pull himself back onto the platform, R. Umar Abbasi, a freelance photographer for The Post began taking photos. Abbasi claims he was trying to signal the driver of the train with his camera’s flash and wasn’t trying to take photos of Han’s plight. But in any case, the train struck Han and killed him despite the engineer’s efforts to stop in time. Abbasi left his camera’s memory card at The Post‘s office, and the editors chose to publish the photo.
Since then, The Post has been swamped with criticism, though they have yet to offer any response. (For the record, The Post is well-known for controversial and sensationalistic headlines and tactics in the past.) Even so, the issue raises a host of complex questions concerning journalistic ethics and what can and should be considered newsworthy. David Carr, writing for The New York Times, does an excellent job of exploring several of them. For example:
1. Within its four corners, The Post cover treatment neatly embodies everything people hate and suspect about the news media business: not only are journalists bystanders, moral and ethical eunuchs who don’t intervene when danger or evil presents itself, but perhaps they secretly root for its culmination.
5. The tabloid values that mark modern news media existence work fine when a celebrity tips over or a rich perpetrator is caught red-handed, but not so much when death is imminent. I’m not immune to the blunt, dirty pleasure of a well-executed tabloid cover, but there were many other images to choose from. Never mind the agency of the photo — it doesn’t matter whether the photographer was using his flash to warn, as he suggested, or documenting the death of a man — once it is in the can, it should have stayed there.
Instead, The New York Post milked the death of someone for maximum commercial effect, with a full-page photo inside of his frozen helplessness, replete with helpful pointers to show the train bearing down and, on the Web, a video about the photographer’s experience that was a kind of slow-motion deconstruction. The marginal civic good served by the story — watch yourself on the subway platform — could have been performed in far more honorable ways. He ended up run over twice.
The media publishes disturbing content — text, videos, images — all the time. When done properly, this can be exceedingly newsworthy, by forcing us to confront the truth that pain, suffering, and evil exist in this world. Indeed, that’s one of the journalist’s highest callings, to shake us free from complacency and illusion, and help us see the world as it really is. But with this photo, The New York Post crossed the line from newsworthiness to exploitation. As Carr puts it, the paper “milked the death of someone for maximum commercial effect” — a wicked and senseless act that deserves to be soundly criticized. Perhaps The Post will experience some amount of hardship for their decision.
Beyond the obvious journalistic ethics at play in this tragedy, an event like this naturally causes us to wonder what we’d have done had we been there. Of course, we’d all like to think that we’d have done the right thing, that we would’ve raced to the platform’s edge and pulled Mr. Han up or even risked our own life and valiantly jump down to save him. But the fact that the most done by anyone who was actually there was to wave at the oncoming train, or set off their camera flash — and that several people actually ran away from Mr. Han — should give us pause concerning making such heroic statements.
Again, I refer to Carr:
The image is a kind of crucible of self-analysis. Never mind what the photographer did, what would we do? In that sudden moment, our base impulses emerge. Photographers shoot, heroes declare, and most of us cower. We are not soldiers, expected to engage in selfless acts that trump survival instincts. We are civilians and if called to duty, who among us will accept?
I hope and pray that if I’m ever in such a situation, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment before doing the right thing, regardless of the cost. But right now, sitting in my comfortable chair and pecking away at my keyboard, I realize that the simple, sad, disturbing fact is that I don’t know what I would do. I might run to the platform’s edge. I might freeze in shock and confusion. I might hover over my family to spare my children a gruesome sight. I might call the police. I might scream, wave, and jump up and down to get the engineer’s attention. Or, God have mercy, I might turn a blind eye and run away.
How can we know what we’re capable of before our time of testing?