Images From Haiti: Telling The Story Or Borderline Tabloid?

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Much of the world has been moved by vivid pictures of the tragedy in Haiti. Web sites, television programs and newspapers have featured frightening images of death and destruction. But when is a disaster image necessary to illustrate the severity of a situation, and when does it cross the line into sensationalism? To explain the sometimes fine line, guest host Lynn Neary talks NPR Senior Supervising Producer for multimedia Keith Jenkins, a former photography editor at the Washington Post, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice.


As we mentioned, many Americans have been moved by the vivid pictures of the tragedy in Haiti. Web sites, television programs and newspapers have featured frightening images of death and destruction. And that made us wonder, when is a disaster image necessary to illustrate the severity of the situation, and when does it cross the line into sensationalism?

Joining us to discuss how news organizations decide what images to publish is Keith Jenkins. He's NPR's own multimedia senior supervising producer. He's also a former photography editor at the Washington Post.

We're also joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice. Welcome to both of you.


Ms.�DEANNE FITZMAURICE (Photographer): Thank you.

NEARY: And Keith, let me start with you. When dealing with images as horrific as the ones coming out of Haiti have been, how do you decide what goes on our Web site and what doesn't?

JENKINS: Well, I think you always try to reflect the reality of the situation. As journalists, that's what our role is, but you can't do that in a vacuum. You really have to take into account some other factors that hopefully will influence your decision.

You know, what is it that you're trying to do as a journalist in a particular situation? Are you trying to reflect accurately what's going on on the ground, or are you trying to kind of narrow focus on a particular set of issues?

In this case, I think the first set of horrific images that came out, showing lots of bodies in various stages, really focused the attention on just how tragic the situation was, but at the same time, you know, we found ourselves wanting to make sure that we were as accurate as possible about what we were showing and what people were looking at.

NEARY: You know, Deanne, it seems that increasingly, photos from disasters have become more graphic, but the images from Haiti seem even worse. Has something changed in terms of what the media will show and what the public will tolerate, do you think?

Ms.�FITZMAURICE: There's something about this story that seems different than other stories. It's like Katrina, in terms of what we're seeing, but on a much huger scale. And you know, I don't know why. I think some of it is, as an international story, its proximity to the U.S., that it's, you know, in the Western Hemisphere, journalists are there. It was easy to get there. People got there fast, and the images are just, you know, gut-wrenching that are coming out of there.

NEARY: What do you think, Keith? Has something changed? I mean, are we tolerating worse images from disasters, or does the public need that in order to respond? What's happening here?

JENKINS: Well, I think a couple of things. I think Deanne is right in that the proximity to the U.S., and more importantly, the proximity to the U.S. media machine has made this an easier disaster to cover in a lot of ways, but I also think about what's changed in the media landscape in the last five years.

There's been a tremendous move towards all forms of instantaneous coverage of almost everything with no filters. So again, out of Haiti, some of the first images coming out were coming out on people's cell phones. So that the media is almost playing catch-up from day one, and the rules have changed to the extent that regular citizens are just recording what's around them. And I think, in some ways, the media is starting to adopt some of that. And I think the challenge is, how do we kind of maintain our ability to filter smartly, to really kind of move the conversation, move the coverage in ways that really reflect it rather than are kind of just knee-jerk responses to what's in front of us.

NEARY: Deanne, you've worked in war zones a lot. You won your Pulitzer Prize for work documenting a procedure undergone in the U.S. - of an Iraqi boy who had been maimed in a blast, and some of those images were very tough to look at. Do you is there a different standard for war images, though, than there is for disaster images in terms of what is ultimately published?

Ms.�FITZMAURICE: You know, I think there are there are different ways to photograph. You can show what's going on, or you can show how people feel. I think there is a way to photograph in a sensitive manner, you know, to reflect the person's feeling rather than seeing everything.

Some of the images in my story about Saleh, you know, he came to America for medical treatment with severely injured. And the first image in my series, I don't even really show his disfigurement. He had lost one eye, along with losing half of his right arm, fingers on his left hand, and his stomach was blown open, but in this one image, I framed it so that you wouldn't even see his disfigurement. It was just his good eye, and I was just trying to show the spirit of this little boy, and I think that's what saved him.

NEARY: But are there political decisions that are made in terms of deciding war images that are published versus disaster images, Keith? Go ahead, Deanne.

Ms.�FITZMAURICE: You know, I think yeah, I think from a photographer's point of view, you just need to get these images. You shoot them all, and that way you can have a discussion point. You know, I think you when you're out there shooting, you can't be editing yourself. Get the images, and I think it's the responsibility of each editor at each publication to determine what are the right images for the readership.

NEARY: So the photographer Keith, you're the editor. The photographer comes back to you with the images, and then together you decide which ones you think should be shown?

JENKINS: Sometimes together, but often in these situations, photographers are moving constantly. So they get to a point, send you images, and then they're off, and so you really have to, you know: A, hopefully have enough information about the images to make a smart decisions; but B, do that without, sometimes, the directive of the photographer.

And that's where it's important for editors to talk. I think, you know, Deanne raises a really good point, and I think one of the things that we are striving to do with this coverage is, in spite of the horrific set of images that are coming out, to maintain a level of humanity and a level of personal, I guess, connectedness to the people who are suffering right now in Haiti.

And I think that the way you do that in this type of environment is, as editors, to talk constantly, to ask yourselves the questions, you know, about relevancy, about the position of you versus the subject and to really kind of constantly adjust and make sure that you're constantly thinking about this stuff.

NEARY: And finally, Deanne, one last question, briefly. Do you worry that the public is becoming desensitized when they see these kinds of images so frequently now, it seems?

Ms.�FITZMAURICE: I don't think so. I think well, I first of all think that it's necessary, that people need to see these images to know what's going on there.

I feel like this story is different. I feel like people are looking at these images, and they're affected by them, and we can tell by the amount of donations that are coming in.

NEARY: Okay, thanks so much for joining us. Keith Jenkins is NPR's multimedia senior supervising producer, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studio. We were also joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice, who joined us by phone from her home in San Francisco. Thanks to both of you for joining me.

JENKINS: Thank you.

Ms.�FITZMAURICE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: Coming up, some of the nation's biggest banks are handing out hefty bonuses, and the Obama administration isn't happy about it.

Unidentified Woman #1: You would certainly think that the financial institutions that are now doing a little bit better would have some sense, and this big bonus season, of course it's going to offend the American people. It offends me.

NEARY: We'll talk about President Obama's financial responsibility fee. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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