The Malaysia Air Crash: Should We Publish Pictures of Bodies?

The tragedy is yet another reminder that ethics, as well as facts, are part of real-time reporting.

We do not yet know all the details. We do not even know most of the details. What we do know is that earlier today, a passenger jet carrying 295 people crashed on the Russian/Ukrainian border. We know that all aboard were killed. 

I know something else, too, something you might not: that one of the people who perished today was a young woman, thin, with shoulder-length hair that was brown and a little bit wavy. I know what she was wearing when she died: a t-shirt of bright white and a skirt of deep black. I know that when she died, she was holding something. Or someone. Her pale arms, stark in a sea of fuel-blackened wreckage, remain frozen in an awkward embrace. 

I know all this because of The New York Times, which, to accompany its article about the crash, initially included a photograph that included that young woman. Or, rather, the corpse of that young woman. Other outlets have used the same image to illustrate their own stories on the tragedy. This is, on the one hand, unsurprising: There are only nine images of the crash so far from the Reuters news wire, and the one containing the young woman's body is the most illustrative of them all. It'd be easy to miss her, pale and small, within the wreckage. It'd be easy to miss the warning Reuters appended to its caption: "ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH."

Breaking news, of course, moves quickly. Real-time reporting tools speed it along. News organizations have developed, in fairly short order, standards for navigating this newfound swiftness. We know to verify facts before publishing them. We know to source on-the-ground images to combat hoaxes. We know that getting it first is not as important as getting it right. The press criticism show On the Media recently published a guide to breaking news. It included nine points, one of which was this: "In the immediate aftermath, news outlets will get it wrong." 

This is true. It's true when it comes to reporting. It's also true, though, when it comes to ethics—when it comes to the question of what readers actually need to know and see about unfolding tragedies. The bomb, exploding? The corpse, mutilated? The people falling from the towers? There is a fine line, always, between journalism and sensationalism. And the higher the speed, in general, the higher the stakes.

The Times, which told us that "our editors decided that the current photos are better images to accompany this story," has since replaced that initial photo with one that presents only mechanical wreckage. ("We regularly update the text and visual components of our breaking news coverage online," a spokeswoman said over email, "to refine the story and add new information.") The swap suggests how useful it would be to have another guide—one that helps journalists to navigate not just the truth of breaking news, but the propriety. A woman was killed today, and I know what she looked like at the moment of her death. I will keep knowing that. News outlets, the good ones, spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to present information as it unfolds; part of their thinking should respect the fact that images, once revealed, cannot be unseen.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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