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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Ethics of Children, Death and Photography


Nearly six yeas ago the body of Heather Thomas was found floating in a lake in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. The girl, ten years old, had been missing for 23 days. Hers was the highest profile kidnapping in a summer that saw an unsettling number of attempted kidnappings in the Greater Vancouver area.

As police investigated the scene of the crime, a helicopter buzzed overhead and snapped pictures of the shoreline. The next day one of those shots appeared on the front page of The Vancouver Province newspaper. In the bottom left-hand corner was Heather’s dead body. Clearly visible, it floated in the water as three police officers stood discussing the situation. The headline read: “Is it Heather’s Body in the Lake? Massive investigation as corpse discovered in Golden Ears Park.”

Sherry Charlie was only 19 months old when she was killed in foster care on Sept. 4, 2002. Three years later it was discovered that her uncle and foster parent, Ryan George, had a criminal history. Suddenly Sherry’s death was front-page news, and her face symbolized a childcare system gone terribly wrong. A family photo of Sherry, smiling and wholesome, made the rounds on newspapers and television broadcasts across the country.

The story has persisted, and with every caveat, development and nuance reported, there is Sherry’s face looking back at readers and audiences through the newspaper page, the television set, the computer screen, smiling.

Because of their vulnerability, children require extra sensitivities in news coverage. Yet the duty to inform the public, combined with the pragmatic arguments for publishing captivating images, can leave sensitivity by the wayside.

In spite of newsroom standards that emphasize minimization of harm and increased discretion when covering moments of death, especially with children, harm reduction is often secondary to the news value of a story and the public’s right to know.

More harm than good?

Sherry Charlie’s face forced harsh criticism on the BC Liberals, her smile urging politicians to make changes that would save other foster children like her. It must be recognized that these photos resonate with those immediately connected to the deceased child as well as with general readers and viewers. Given the trauma experienced by families that lose a child, is it unethical to use a child’s face and name to promote social change and bring a criminal to account?

Dr. Patrice Keats, a counseling psychology professor at Simon Fraser University, lives by the philosophy of “Do no harm.” In journalism, as in life, harm is unavoidable. Considering this, she cautions against using murdered children such as Sherry Charlie as “poster children” unless broader context is provided – in this case, a longstanding problem with First Nations childcare systems in BC.

“In a sense, by putting this picture up, it’s like it’s just now, and it is not – that limits people’s understanding of what is going on,” says Keats.

Keats, who studies traumatic stress, says that the printing of a photograph of a murdered child, such as the one of Heather Thomas’ body in the lake, can cause a family to experience “secondary wounding.” She explains: “Seeing the image would be like a re-opening of the wound…it can never really heal until the coverage stops.”

However, the managing editor of CTV offers an alternative perspective. Ethan Faber says that often families desire to speak to the media about the loved ones they lost, as a way of remembering and seeking justice.

In light of this, Keats says, “The photo should be one [the family] chooses as a way of honouring the child.” If she had her way, traumatized families would have greater control in the decision-making process.

Wayne Williams, deputy bureau chief at CBC News, doesn’t agree. These stories, he says, “should be handled sensitively and with the family in mind, but it doesn’t mean the family gets to say ‘no story.’”

For Williams, minimizing harm is “a question of how [the photo] is handled, not whether it should be done or not.” By and large, the newsrooms examined agreed on this perspective and on the actual handling of sensitive imagery.

“I think television has the ability to reduce the impact of the photo by broadcasting it for a shorter period of time,” says Faber, who chooses to show an image for three seconds if it’s deemed graphic yet important for the public to see.

Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, agrees and admits being extra careful in the print business. “We’re a little more conscious in the sense that it’s an image you hold in your hand and you basically can stay focused on it for a long time.”

Keats, in contrast, argues that broadcast images are more powerful than the printed image. Photos in newspapers can be skimmed over, she says, while “TV is immediate, it captures you. I think even if it is shown for one second, even in a blink people can see amazing amounts of things.”

But whether shown for three seconds or printed in the back section of a paper, an image is there to be seen.

Cracking codes Ethical codes generally acknowledge the need to minimize harm when covering victims of crime. For instance, the Radio-Television National Directors Association (RTNDA), the code, which CTV refers to, states: “Treat all subjects of news coverage with respect and dignity, showing particular compassion to victims of crime or tragedy.”

Yet in one of the first statements on the RTNDA’s code, it says that: “Professional electronic journalists should recognize that their first obligation is to the public.” The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) all have similar statements.

The use of photographs depicting dead children is appropriate as long as it is advancing a cause and is not merely “pandering to lurid curiosity,” which the SJP warns against. As shown in ethical codes and as stated by the directors of newsrooms themselves, both principles of minimizing harm and obligation to the public must be weighed.

However, the pressures facing newsrooms to get the story or capture the attention of audiences cannot be ignored.

In the newsroom

Journalism is a public undertaking and journalists have an ethical responsibility to inform citizens about the events and issues. Is there room in this equation for precautions against poor taste or traumatic depictions?

All of the newsroom decision makers interviewed spoke of some sort of deliberative process that filters editorial decisions of taste in photographs. “It’s a tough an imprecise art form, there’s no science to it,” says LaPointe. “It’s often dependant on the gaggle of people that you have around it.”

Faber says CTV tries to get as much input as possible. “We like to hear from people who are parents and people in our newsroom working with all kinds of backgrounds.”

CBC handles editorial decisions differently. Their process can at times involve speaking with senior management in Toronto. “CBC has policy, journalistic policy, fairly rigid standards and practices, procedures,” says Williams. “We live and die by that, it’s what makes a public broadcaster different from a private broadcaster when it comes to news.”

The sensitive journalist

The Province ran an apology after publishing the photo of Heather Thomas’ body in the lake. Then editor-in-chief, Vivienne Sosnowski wrote:

Our front-page handling of the Heather Thomas story in Monday’s paper was insensitive. I believe it must be an unshakable philosophy at The Province that this paper must show kindness and compassion at all times to our community, to our readers and to families and loved ones caught up in the tragedy and horror.

Sensitivity, kindness and compassion are mentioned as parts of an “unshakable philosophy.” However, the Heather Thomas photo, according to LaPointe, was a reflection of The Province’s style. “They work the notion of fear much more in a tabloid than we do … we [a broadsheet] tend to be more ‘clean-finger nailed’ about those types of things.”

LaPointe and Faber both agree that photographs of children add to the effect of a story. In regards to the Sherry Charlie example Faber says, “The drive for accountability is strengthened by being attached to a face and a name.”

To Faber, having a face and a name is “the most important thing about this story.”

LaPointe says that photos of children take people back to their childhoods. “I think we can be safely accused at times of exploiting that, and frankly, of overusing some images, but on balance the picture helps to tell the story and can a lot of ways resonate much more with people.”

Williams, over and over, maintains that each individual case has to be judged on its own merits. “If there’s a larger public good that can be gotten from the spotlight being shown on … an incident … the same rules apply [between adults and children].” There were no apparent objections to the “poster child” effect.

Despite their differences, all three say that the public benefits from linking news with images. Ultimately, the only firm consideration with respect to sensitivities in the death of children was notifying next of kin. All three mentioned this as a hard rule. “The only thing that we have to be sensitive about is that the person’s family has been notified,” says LaPointe.

Little was said about trauma. Once next of kin is informed and the story enters the public sphere, harm reduction is given little consideration. This supports the principle that the first loyalty of a journalist is the public. It is the public, as general and wide a term as that may be, that is of primary importance.

Williams, LaPointe and Faber all felt that the persistent re-airing of Sherry Charlie’s photograph spotlighted an important issue in a positive way.

The Heather Thomas photo that The Province ran on its front page was discussed in terms of taste and public reaction, not its contribution or effect on the story. Although mentioned in The Province’s apology, potential trauma to the family and loved ones did not seem to be the reason that moved Sosnowski to publish the letter.

In general, harm reduction was secondary to news value and the public’s right to know. And in general, photographs of children and the emotions they convey are seen, if anything, to benefit to a story because of the added interest they bring.

So what now?

Sherry Charlie’s image recently resulted in the BC provincial government accepting 62 recommendations put forward after persistent coverage of her death. Whether these recommendations will change the child welfare system remains to be seen, though BC has apparently made efforts, creating a new cabinet position to oversee child welfare. But without her face shown repeatedly it is unlikely that an inquiry would have taken place.

The effect pictures of children have on society cannot be denied. Yet in today’s newsroom, the value of minimizing harm is secondary to the consideration of journalists’ responsibility to the public.

The public’s need to know is a principle entrenched in codes of ethics and translated into practice. The potential trauma caused to families by printing photographs of murdered children seems to be an afterthought to community values and standards of “taste.” Families can be traumatized by media attention surrounding lost loved ones, especially children, and, as Keats pointed out, their trauma can be exacerbated by images.

The photographs of dead children should not be eliminated from stories where they add to the understanding of a greater problem. At the same time, these photos should not be over-used.

There needs to be conscious restraint in the decision making process, especially when dealing with children and death. In the decision making process, it seems that trauma is not adequately addressed. News Media have the power to traumatize families and communities. This power must be recognized, and a system for reigning it in must be implemented in newsrooms.

KRISTINE THIESSEN is a graduate student in her final year at the UBC School of Journalism. Prior to entering the program, she achieved a BA in Political Science. Her roots stem from the heritage village of Steveston in Richmond, BC. Experimenting as a writer/editor for a university publication triggered a curiosity for journalism. This interest was furthered this past summer, when she had the pleasure of interning at a local paper, The Richmond Review, and CTV Vancouver

JAYSON GO is in the final year of his Masters of Journalism degree at the University of British Columbia. Originally from Cebu City, the Philippines, Go has worked for CBC as an associate producer and has also interned as a researcher for Global National with Kevin Newman. In 2006 he was one of eight student journalists chosen from across Canada for the Joan Donaldson Newsworld Scholarship. He holds a BA in Anthropology and Political Science from UBC. His academic papers have been published in the UBC Journal of Political Studies and the Southern Maine Review.

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