Time Magazine took some heat for its cover this week, which featured a photo of a young Afghan woman whose nose and ears were chopped off as a result of a Taliban decree because she had fled her abusive in-laws. Critics alleged that the cover photo was too graphic and disturbing, especially for children to see. Hofstra University Anthropology Professor Daniel Martin Varisco stated in his blog that the cover photograph was "startling, haunting, disturbing and an unfortunate example of sensationalized news reporting."
While I believe that this situation was a close call, I think that Time made the right decision.
This issue pops up frequently in journalism. The New York Times and other media outlets were criticized for running photos of people who had jumped from the World Trade Center buildings during the 9/11 attack.
Another publicized incident took place during the War when government contractors were killed by a bomb and their dead bodies were then dragged through the streets and hung on a bridge in Fallujah. Many American newspapers declined to show the graphic photos of the charred, dead bodies hanging from the bridge, but a few of them, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times, chose to show the images on their front pages. Other papers showed the graphic photos, but placed them on the inside pages. During the Iraq War, debates also arose as to whether the media should show the Abu Ghraib prison abuse photos and the coffins of dead soldiers returning to the United States.
During the Winter Olympics earlier this year, media outlets were criticized for showing the video of the Georgian luger who was killed during a trial run. While it was newsworthy, many people criticized the networks for sensationalizing the story by showing the actual crash.
These media debates on showing graphic images aren't new. Matthew Brady shocked Americans by publishing his staff photographers' photos of dead bodies at the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. During the Vietnam War, several iconic graphic photos were taken, including Kim Phuc, a crying naked young girl who was fleeing from a napalm attack, a South Vietnamese General executing a Viet Cong prisoner on a Saigon street, and dead bodies of My Lai massacre victims after they were shot. During the war in Somalia, photos and videos were shown of a dead American soldier being dragged down the street.
In addressing the issue of whether news outlets should show a photo of a man stepping over dead bodies in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, Terry Eiler, a photojournalist and director of Ohio University's school of visual communication told Alicia Shepard of National Public Radio, "Can I run this dead body in my publication without offending, harming, hurting, or disturbing the audience? When you are looking at the scale of destruction in Haiti you can't tell that story without showing dead bodies."
That same thought process applies to Time Magazine's cover. The point of Time's article was to show that Afghan women would suffer if deals were cut with Taliban leaders. Showing the picture of the Afghan teen with her nose cut off displays the gravity of the problem.
In defending his decision to run the cover, Time's managing editor Richard Stengel said in the magazine:
[Bad] things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening -- and what can happen -- in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban's treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.
If a photo or video sheds light on an important issue or conveys a powerful message then it generally should be shown. Of course, there are certain exceptions, such as a beheading or a live execution.
There are certain remedies for various media outlets. Television networks often run graphic video, but state a disclaimer beforehand warning the viewers that they are about to see disturbing footage. At least that gives viewers the option of turning away or temporarily changing the channel. Newspapers and magazines can put graphic photos on the inside pages or on their website with a warning on the front page or cover.
Another factor in favor of showing the Time Magazine photo was that the woman willingly cooperated and wanted to pose for the photo to get the message out.
Some people prefer the "would it spoil someone's breakfast test?' as to whether to run graphic photos. However, the media has an obligation to bring important stories and images to the public, even if it makes them uncomfortable.