MICHELLE ROGERS AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2473

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Children and Young People
Photographs
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview

Michelle Rogers says the New Zealand Herald’s use of photographs of a dead Syrian boy on the news site nzherald.co.nz was distressing and breached Press Council Principles 3 (Children and Young people) and 11 (Photographs and Graphics).

The complaint is not upheld.

Background

The Herald published photographs of Aylan Kurdi both in stories and on the homepage of nzherald.co.nz on different occasions.

Aylan was a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned when the boat he was in, with his family and other refugees, capsized off the Turkish coast en route to Greece.

Images of Aylan’s body washed up on the beach and being carried away by a Turkish police officer were used widely by media internationally. The boy effectively became the face of the Syrian refugee crisis.

The Complaint

The complainant said photographs of Aylan on the homepage of nzherald.co.nz on different occasions in early September were upsetting, distressing and shocking and not something she would have chosen to view.

While she was upset, the situation would have been even more distressing for children who might have seen it. Some may have been worried that, should they die, their own photographs may be ‘splashed around the world’.

Further to this, Aylan’s own interests were not looked after by the Herald and the boy was not treated with respect and dignity.

Although the images should not have been used at all, Herald editors should have at least preceded them with a warning about their disturbing nature.

The Response

The complaint was dealt with by Chris Reed, the editor of NZME.’s news service, and theHerald’s morning editor.

Once the images first landed at the Herald via its Associated Press feed, there was discussion among editors about their use.

Initially, it was decided to use only one image, which showed Aylan being carried from the beach by the Turkish policeman. This choice was made because the boy’s face was not visible and it wasn’t obvious he was dead.

The editor notes that other images, of the boy’s body on the shore, were used by many other media outlets, including those in New Zealand. They showed his face and made it more evident Aylan was dead. They weren’t used by theHerald at that time because of the distress they may have caused.

Although the complainant would not have chosen to view the image, she did chose to visit nzherald.co.nz, which almost always carried significant hard news stories and images in prominent positions.

The photo was not shared on social networks to limit its spread beyond the Herald website.

The editor cited freedom of expression and argued there was an exceptional degree of public interest in the case.

Using the photos of Aylan was justified to stimulate debate and encourage action.

In regards to the lack of a warning, the editor agreed with the complainant after the issue was first raised. The photo was re-cropped on the homepage and the audience was warned about the distressing content they’d face going through to the article page.

A subsequent use of one the images did not carry a warning because of the time that had lapsed. And, in that case, the image was published by staff at theHerald’s sister publication, The Wairarapa Times-Age, which was hosted on the nzherald.co.nz site, and was removed because it was a tight crop of the body on the beach.

A third incident complained of also didn’t carry a warning, but care was taken on image selection and cropping in regards to the homepage positioning.

Only one complaint about the particular image of Aylan being carried by the policeman was received by theHerald.

New Zealand media are duty bound to report on significant domestic and international events. Using the images was part of theHerald’s responsible reporting of the Syrian refugee crisis.

The Decision

The photograph, albeit a distressing depiction of an extremely tragic event, is a valid news picture.

Its use by the NZ Herald, in all forms, is justified considering the magnitude of the international story it portrayed. In fact, theHerald was duty bound to cover what was a significant story and illustrate it in the way it did.

Use of the image as a historical record of the tragic events unfolding during the refugee crisis could, as the editor suggests, be considered an obligation of a responsible news organisation.

It is difficult to predict but one must wonder whether this image will forever be linked to the refugee crisis in the same way, for example, the dramatic Associated Press photograph of a napalm-burned Kim Phuc will continue to be the defining news picture of the Vietnam war.

Suggestions by the Herald editor that the picture’s impact was somehow minimised by the large number of other media organisations which also used it are irrelevant. A safety-in-numbers defence doesn’t stack up when an editor can’t assume readers have been exposed to the image elsewhere. Yes, it is likely users had seen it elsewhere, but the decision to publish on theHerald site sits solely with the editor of the Herald.

The wide circulation of the image internationally does, however, point to its news value.

Press Council Principle 11 (Photographs and Graphics) says images showing distressing or shocking situations should be handled with special consideration for those affected.

It would be difficult to argue that those affected by this tragedy could be any harder hit by the photo being published on a NZ-based news site. In fact, it has been reported that Aylan’s family were grateful the image was used so widely because it shone a light on the plight of Syrian refugees.

Principle 11 also requires editors ‘take care’ when selecting images.

There is some merit in the complainant’s suggestion that readers could have been forewarned about the graphic image, effectively giving them the opportunity not to click on the homepage link through to the story.

The editor’s toing and froing on this point - not carrying a warning until a complaint was received, and then not again on a subsequent use because time had passed - is inconsistent and doesn’t help.

However, use of such graphic images prominently on a homepage - a news site’s shop window, so to speak - with or without a warning, will always be at the discretion of the editor. And, with a story of this significance, it could be argued that using it uncut on the website’s most prominent position was warranted.

In regards to Principle 3 (Children and Young People), exceptional public interest applies.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, and Tim Watkin.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.