CHICAGO, December 5, 2012— The New York Post and freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi came under withering criticism this week from competing media entities for capturing the above photograph and having the courage to publish it, along with the headline “DOOMED”. The New York Post is known for controversial headlines, the most famous being the 1983 headline, “Headless Body in Topless Bar.”
Ki Suk Han was a 58-year old family man. A homeless man who had been harassing other straphangers pushed Han in front of an oncoming train at the Times Square Station in Manhattan. Abbasi happened to be on the platform as the incident unfolded. He captured the image as the train bore down on Ki Suk Han, who struggled to get back on the platform. The train struck Mr. Han, killing him.
Photographer Abbasi was in the right place at the right time. He did what he was supposed to do, capture images. The editors at the New York Post did what they were supposed to do. Make decisions. The copywriters did what they were supposed to do, come up with a compelling headline.
The New York Times, in a fit of moral hypocritical indignation, questioned whether the photograph should have been published. Yet, they published the Post’s front page on their website. The paragon of so-called ethical and professional journalism is probably jealous. None of their people got the shot. This is the type of image Pulitzer and other prestigious prizes are awarded for.
Other journalists who criticized the Post also published the photo or put it on their personal social media sites. If the photo was so ethically challenging, why did the arbiters of so-called journalistic ethics publish it too? Are journalists who criticize the competition while doing the very thing they are criticizing really all that ethical?
There was no criticism of the people closest to the victim. It was reported they were photographing and shooting video with their cell phones. Notice not one citizen on the reportedly crowded platform is in the photograph trying to assist Mr. Han. That would have been a stunning photo.
The media critics would happily have bought those phone images and videos. “If it bleeds it leads” is the motto. Anyone with a cell phone, especially a smart phone, is a photographer and can sell or disseminate their images. The Post bought the image and put it out. They beat the competition. The competition is piling on in bitter envy.
This type of photograph and video generates ethical dilemmas in newsrooms. The biggest dilemma is whether to publish. Iconic photos such as monks immolating themselves during the height of the Viet Nam war, the naked Vietnamese “napalm girl”, U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Ambassador Chris Stevens body, half naked, being pulled or dragged from the safe house in Benghazi, images of people, or even animals, in severe distress, injury, or death, generate debate by editors in newsrooms all over the world.
These images if published generate ethical criticism in various journalism forums. The criticism is childish. Each media entity has its own standards for reportage. It is not their position to set standards for the competition. If everyone played by the same rules media would be bland, boring, and bankrupt.
If Mr. Abbassi or another media cameraman shot video and the video was published it would have gone viral. At the end of the day journalism is about getting accurate truthful news, images, video and getting it out. The business of journalism is not covetously criticizing the morals or ethics of the competition.
It is up to the consuming public to decide whether to continue purchasing the end product. The public is the final arbiter of ethics or morals. Photographs and video of this nature tend to go viral. Millions of eyeballs view them, which means millions of eyeballs view whatever advertising accompanies the images and stories, in print or online.
A good ethical argument could have been made if the point of impact or the end result of the impact, the dead body or gory scene, was published. Shocking the public or the collective conscience might go too far. Media is not in the horror business. On the other hand, people pay to entertain themselves with worse blood and gore at the movies.
Mr. Abbassi also came under criticism in public comment sections of the Post and other outlets for shooting images instead of helping the victim. Abbassi, by his own account, was several feet away when he shot the images. He is also in his fifties and not exactly the superhero type. Again, according to reports there were several people close to the victim. Notice again that there is not one person assisting Mr. Han. Not even an outstretched arm.
People who were capturing images with their cell phones were up close and personal. They, of course, were not criticized as being ghoulish immoral fiends. How many of them proudly captured the point of impact or the gore and strutted their stuff on social media or YouTube? How many tried to sell their images? How many willing media outlets offered to buy them?
News is a 24/7 minute-by-minute cycle. It moves at hyper-warp speed. Decisions on whether to publish stories or images must be made at the speed of the news. Whether it is an image of impending disaster or a story with classified government information, decisions must be made to publish before the competition gets it.
Journalism is a business, first and foremost. It is the information business. It is a cutthroat, dog eat dog business, my apologies to canines. Its responsibility is to gather the information, images, or video, and disseminate the product out in a timely, accurate and truthful manner. Its other responsibility is to get consumers to read or view the news in order to earn a profit. The choices are boring sober solemnity, compelling sensationalism, and everything in between.
Journalists should be careful about throwing rocks in glass houses when they discuss ethics. Their stories, images, or conduct could be criticized just as harshly. Their criticism could also be challenged on ethical grounds as the whining of pathetic losers.
Peter V. Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance journalist and photojournalist, cook, and raconteur. He likes to be the irreverent sharp stick that pokes, prods, and annoys. His opinions are his and his alone. Mr. Bella is a member of the National Press Photographers Association, Online News Association, Chicago Headline Club, and the Society for Professional Journalists.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.