The Society of Professional Journalists created a Code of Ethics as a recommended standard of good practices. These are only recommendations. They are not rules.
Within the principle to Minimize Harm, the code states: Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Remember there is no sanctioning body in journalism. There are no punishments to be levied against those that break the rules. Because there are no rules. Which is why this photograph from the New York Post doesn’t simply violate the standards of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics; it uses it as toilet paper.
Here is the story behind the controversial photograph.
Queens man Ki Suk Han, 58, died after he was pushed on the tracks by an unnamed attacker moments before an oncoming train arrived at the 49th Street N, R, Q subway platform in Manhattan on Monday afternoon, according to police. On Tuesday afternoon, police confirmed they had someone in custody in connection with the attack. The photographer who shot the chilling image, New York Post freelancer R. Umar Abbasi, has sparked outrage on social media from those wondering why he did not do something to help pull Han off the track instead of taking pictures.
Abbasi told the New York Post that he started running toward Han and hitting the flash on his camera while shooting photos, hoping to catch the attention of the train’s driver.
“The most painful part was I could see him getting closer to the edge. He was getting so close,’’ Abbasi told The Post. “And people were running toward him and the train. I didn’t think about [the attacker] until after. In that moment, I just wanted to warn the train – to try and save a life.”
“Getting a conductor’s attention with a flash — and maybe even blinding him with it — doesn’t seem like the way you’d necessarily help someone that’s clinging to the subway platform,’’ wrote The Atlantic’s Alexander Abad-Santos.
It’s these sort of incidents that stir passionate discussions in newsrooms (yes, they still exist) and journalism classes between the public’s right to know and how far is going too far? On another the actions of the photographer fit quite nicely into a society where everyone has a camera and any tragedy is only a few clicks away from being uploaded to You Tube or featured on TMZ or World Star Hip-Hop.
When I saw the photo of the last moments of Ki Suk Han’s life and heard the criticism of Abbasi’s seeming callousness, my thoughts turned back to Kevin Carter and his 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning photo. The imagery is searing. In the Sudan, a starving child is too weak to crawl to a feeding center. Watching patiently and balefully is a vulture as if waiting for her to die so it can feed. Winning the highest award journalism has to offer should have been the pinnacle of Carter’s career but it ruined his life before he ended it in 1994. Carter committed suicide.
Carter’s suicide note read in part, “I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners …”
I hope Mr. Abbasi sleeps well. I doubt the engineer driving the subway train or anyone on the platform that witnessed Han’s death will. By both his actions and his inaction Abbasi has opened himself to the accusation he should have passed up taking the picture and tried to be a human being instead. Maybe he could have saved a life and maybe Han was truly doomed.
Apparently, Han was assaulted and pushed on the tracks by a homeless man. That led to his first death. His second came when someone at Rupert Murdoch’s grubby rag decided to exploit his demise to sell papers.
- Anger at New York Post cover photo of subway passenger seconds from death (guardian.co.uk)
- Suspect in fatal NYC subway push implicates self (news.yahoo.com)
- Controversy grows over NY subway death caught on camera (metronews.ca)