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Op-Ed

AP’s decision to publish photo of deceased migrants was a breach of journalistic ethics

The photo seems to have been distributed for its shock value, with the hope that audiences will finally pay attention to the migrant crisis.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Yesterday, half of my Twitter timeline was a photo that will forever be etched on my memory. The other half, outrage for the exploitation of a Latino father and his baby. 

On Tuesday, the Associated Press published a shocking photo of a migrant father and daughter from El Salvador who drowned in the Rio Grande on their way to seek asylum in the United States. The image, taken by journalist Julia Le Duc, and first published by Mexican newspaper La Jornada, shows a 23-month-old child and her father lying facedown in the water, having drowned after getting swept away in the current.

The AP decided to share the photo after “lengthy discussions” among editors. They defended their decision in a statement Wednesday, explaining that such images “convey the reality of the border, where hundreds of people die each year attempting to cross into the United States illegally.” 

Soon after the AP’s publication, the photo and the accompanying story were shared all over social media, amid outrage from Latinx individuals who expressed shock at what they regarded as the casual dehumanization of brown people. 

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In a statement I helped draft on Wednesday, the National Association for Hispanic Journalists, said the photo “dehumanizes the plight of a community that are risking their lives, and the lives of their families, out of desperation. Pushing people to look at a shocking image that isn’t in context, is not beneficial for the viewers, it is not beneficial for journalists, and it is absolutely detrimental to the immigrant community.”

While I feel grateful to mainstream publications like the AP for devoting space, time, and resources to the migrant crisis story, as well as to the community that has long deserved the coverage, I also want to scream into oblivion for the AP’s senseless choice of placement and other media outlets’ thoughtless regurgitation.  

To be clear, this is not about the photo itself.  

The photo itself is: accurate, essential (when accompanied with the right context), and most likely, even award-winning.  

The issue, for me, is that the photo seems to have been distributed more for its shock value than for its content, with the hope that viewers, readers, and audiences will finally pay attention to the crisis.

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With dire situations occurring across the globe, shock value seems to have become a priority over journalistic ethics to treat subjects with respect and dignity. We saw the same outrage in 2015, when the image of a dead 3-year-old Syrian boy, lying facedown on the shores of the Mediterranean, went viral. And the heartbreaking reality seems to be that shock value seems to always come at the expense and exploitation of brown bodies.

Media discretion and respect is, however, extended when the subject is more familiar to white audiences or when the disaster strikes within our borders. We did not see images of dead children after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, for instance. And when the media does share photos of white victims of natural disasters or terrorist attacks, they rarely do so as the news hook. In other words, the photos don’t serve to shock or grab your attention — they help tell the story.

Despite the AP’s explanation that such images “convey the human cost of war, civil unrest or other tragic events in a way that words alone cannot,” the photo at issue doesn’t in the slightest humanize the subjects. Instead, as the lede image thrown into social media feeds without warning or context, it is left to stand alone and be interpreted by the viewer, potentially fueling bias and preconceived notions about vulnerable migrant and immigrant communities. 

With the right context or warning, the photo is essential in helping to tell the story of the migrant crisis. Without context, it runs the risk of dominating the narrative, dehumanizing hundreds of people in the process.   

BA Snyder, the founder and operations manager of Veritas Group, works with several media outlets and journalism-centric national organizations, including the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). BA is also the co-developer of the Journalists of Color Network.