New low for New York Post
Post’s decision to run controversial photo contributes to negative views of journalists
Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012
Updated: Thursday, December 6, 2012 22:12
“Doomed” and “about to die,” Ki-Suck Han’s final moments graced the cover page of Tuesday’s New York Post accompanied by the publication’s typical quarter-of-a-page captions. The photo depicts the 58-year-old clinging to the side of a NYC subway platform as a train approaches. After Han was pushed onto the subway tracks during a confrontation, Post freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi allegedly ran toward the train repeatedly firing off his flash to get the operator to try to stop.
The subway didn’t stop and neither did production. The Post ran the story and the picture on the front cover, an insensitive and unethical decision by a publication that has continually bumped the ethics bar too low to even crawl under anymore.
The national outrage garnered by the issue was not built solely around the decision to print the photo. In fact, the main criticism of the entire instance was Abbasi’s failure to jump into action to save Han’s life. All of it brings up the question of documenting the tragedy versus helping the victim – in other words, when a news photographer witnesses a tragedy in the making, is it his obligation to intervene or to document it?
Most criticism on the issue of the potential rescues has all revolved around the photographer and shifted away from the other people on the platform. In a classic example of the bystander effect, the presence of the other spectators hindered anyone from intervening. The bystanders’ common belief there was nothing they could do or that somebody else would do something. Many ran away before the train even struck.
Forbes asked John Long, the National Press Photographers Association ethics committee chairman, on the duty of the photographer in the situation. “Some say the photographer has no right to participate in the story he or she is covering, that the photographer must remain objective, merely observe and not become a participant,” he said. “I do not believe it is possible to be totally objective. Your very presence at the scene changes the event you are covering to some degree.”
Attempting to catch the conductor’s attention with a flash doesn’t seem like the ideal way to help someone who is clinging for his life to the subway platform, but we cannot analyze the motives of Abbasi without knowing every detail of the situation. It is impossible to determine how much time the train had before it hit Han, if he would be able to save him, what was running through his head or if the people around him would have been willing to put their lives in danger to save another person.
What we can analyze, however, is the photo itself and the Post’s decision to publish it.
What makes this photo different from the photos of employees nose-diving from the crumbling Twin Towers or the skin-and-bones Sudanese child being watched by a ravenous vulture? The media, after all, has a responsibility to tell the story, and as journalists have been told repetitively throughout the course of their careers, “if it bleeds, it leads.” The argument is if a controversial photo contributes to society and allows people to learn from it and make decisions about it, it is fit to run.
The purpose of the picture is overall based on interests and taste tolerance of the reader, but a reason for the necessity of the information or the social value the photo is supposed to provide doesn’t seem to exist.
As for the logistics, taking the photo, running the photo or failing to rescue the victim violated no laws. What everything comes back to is the value of running the story. New York Post placed higher value on the story, and the picture than on the life of the individual.
Instances like this completely discredit all journalists – from the up-and-comers to the seasoned veterans. A recent Gallup poll rates the honesty and ethical standards of people in different career fields, and only 24 percent of the public sees journalists in a good light. The Post cover is the absolute epitome of what people dislike about the media, reinforcing the generalization of the morally and ethically corrupt, selfish, snap-happy swindler who would do anything or let anything happen to collect their paychecks.
If the reports are accurate that there was nothing more Abbasi could do, then there should be no blame on him, and if he did have time to save Han, then his own conscience will get the best of him. New York Post creates stories through dirty journalism and obtains readership through shock value. There’s no “devil’s advocate” position on this one – the Post milked a controversial scenario beyond the ethical boundaries of journalism to sell copies, and by doing so, it only reinforces the reasons for the public’s lack of trust in the field.