Scenes from Turkey: The ethics of a shocking image

On Monday, Andrey G. Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, was shot and killed in an attack at an art gallery in Ankara, Turkey. At least three other people were also injured in the attack. The lone Turkish gunman, who was killed in a shootout, has been identified as a 22-year-old off-duty police officer.

Shortly after the attack, shocking photographs and video from the scene spread across news sites and social media. The following day, those images appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the globe. While there were several photographers at the scene, the photo seen below, taken by AP photographer Burhan Ozbilici, is the focal point for discussion.


The mass publication and spread of these images has once again provoked the discussion regarding the ethics of publishing graphic and shocking images. The public editor of The New York Times, for example, defended the decision to publish the shocking image on the newspaper’s home page.

I’ve written about this debate extensively, asking the fundamental ethical questions: What is the balance between informing audiences and exploiting victims and their families? And what is the balance between shocking audiences and shielding audiences? These are critical questions, and we should continue asking them.

But in the case of this particular image, I think there are two additional points we should be making regarding media ethics:

First, this particular image isn’t necessarily graphic—there is no blood, no mangled body. But the image is most certainly shocking. Yes, the ambassador’s body is on the ground, but the focal point is the gunman—impeccably dressed in a white shirt and black suit and tie—seemingly madman in expression and pose, his right hand still gripping the gun, his left hand gesturing upward.

The moment feels oddly surreal, as if we have seen it before. And we have. The still moment plays out in one’s mind as if a scene from the latest James Bond film. As a Facebook commenter said, the photo makes the incident seem like a glamorized stage script instead of a real event.

And that point is fundamental. We have seen these moments play out over and over again in the entertainment media. And then when the real moment actually happens (like the crumbling of the twin towers) it evokes the Hollywood moment, and the lines become blurred between entertainment and news—yet another example of Postman’s prescient declaration that we are amusing ourselves to death.

Without question this incident is newsworthy. And without question the photograph shows the shocking reality of that event. But the reality has been dulled by what we have seen in the entertainment media.

Second, we must consider the symbiotic relationship between media coverage and such deliberate acts of political violence and terrorism. Media and terrorism are not inherently related, yet they feed off of each other. Laqueur wrote, “It is not the magnitude of the terrorist operation that counts but the publicity.” Alexander argued that the media “willingly or unwillingly” meet the terrorists’ needs. Nacos argued that the mass media, particularly broadcast news, have grown to exploit acts of violence in search of higher ratings, thereby “supporting the media critics’ argument that the mass media, as unwitting as they are, facilitate the media-centered terrorist scheme.” Of additional concern, evidence of a “contagion” effect suggests that media coverage of terrorism can lead to subsequent acts.

As a colleague reminded me, the question that we must ask—as journalists, scholars, and citizens—is, “At what point do the media become culpable?”

Certainly, this is a complicated and consequential question, and no individual journalist or news outlet bears sole responsibility. Rather, this is a decades old manifestation that has become increasingly grave in the digital news and social media environment in which these moments spread instantly and authoritatively. And the audience also bears responsibility: we stare, we claim outrage, we move on to the next crisis without taking any action. But despite the vital importance of this issue, it is a discussion that is largely ignored in media ethics conversations.

Again, without question the murder of a Russian ambassador is newsworthy. And without question the stunning photograph shows the shocking reality of this act of political violence. But at what point does the photograph—and our subsequent acts of voyeurism—move from documenter of history to pawn of terrorism?

While not necessarily focusing on ethics, Time Magazine’s multimedia editor wrote about the photographers’ experiences and the aesthetic factors that led to one image from the scene going viral. That particular image is the one discussed above and is seen on the included newspaper images. The image used for the header image of this post was taken by Yavuz Alatan, AFP/Getty Images, who reportedly said, “I wish this hadn’t happened, and I hadn’t taken those photos.”


Header image credit: Yavuz Alatan, AFP/Getty Images


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