Our Views: Decision to use disturbing photo not made lightly

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Gazette Editorial Board
September 4, 2015

Readers will find a disturbing photo on Page 6B in Friday's newspaper. They should know the decision to use it was not made lightly.

At the 5:30 p.m. news meeting Thursday, editors called in three veteran reporters to join the discussion about whether to publish the photo of a dead 3-year-old Syrian boy on a Turkish beach. Aylan Kurdi, his 5-year-old brother and their mother—all fleeing the violence in Syria—died when their small rubber boat capsized as it headed for Greece.

Early in the news meeting discussion, we agreed that the image being plastered across social media should not influence our decision. Just because it's on everybody's Facebook feed doesn't mean it should be in our newspaper. Anybody can post any image on the Internet. We are not that. We are a family newspaper.

The Associated Press offered other photos of the scene, including a picture of a paramilitary police officer cradling the dead boy's body as he walks across the beach. But it is not clear from looking at that photo that the boy is dead. He could be hurt. He could be sick. He could be sleeping.

The image of the child in a red shirt and blue shorts lying facedown in the surf leaves no doubt. It is iconic photo of an awful event.

People old enough to be following the news during the Vietnam War will likely remember the picture of a naked, crying girl fleeing a napalm attack. Others might remember the picture of a firefighter carrying a child's body from the wreckage of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Those images told the story of tragedy like nothing else could. Normally, we don't publish photos of dead bodies, but this photo is in that category.

Somebody in the news meeting pointed out that children in Janesville will see this image in our newspaper if we use it. They will flip the page and be confronted with a photograph of a small child dead in the sand.

That is a discomforting thought.

But in the end, we decided that it is sometimes the job of a newspaper to share discomforting information, including images.

We hope the photo prompts understanding, discussion and, perhaps, action.

Beyond that, the photo has become news. The AP moved several stories Thursday about how the image is reverberating around the world and focusing attention on the plight of migrants fleeing violence. One of those stories accompanies the photo on Page 6B.

Aylan Kurdi represents hundreds of migrants who have died in recent months. If the suffering of hundreds can be represented by one image, this photo does it.

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