The boy on the beach and the use of disturbing images

The complainant, Don Wilton, thought it was inappropriate for The National to use images of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler washed up on the shores of Turkey, in its coverage of the migrant crisis. There was no violation of policy in its use but the warning ahead of time was not adequate.

COMPLAINT

You said you were offended by The National’s use of the images of a drowned toddler in its coverage of the migrant crisis on its September 2, 2015 broadcast. CBC News and every other news service have been providing extensive coverage of people fleeing conflict and war and seeking asylum in Europe. The countries on the Mediterranean litoral have been on the frontlines – boatloads of people have been attempting to cross into Europe, and some have drowned.

On the September 2 edition of The National, a story was presented using images of Alan Kurdi, a three year old boy who had drowned along with his mother and brother, in an attempt to leave Syria. You thought it was not necessary to tell this story using such graphic images of a dead child. You noted that the child’s image in a Turkish soldier’s arms was shown at the beginning of The National’s report, and then later in the story more images were used:

Further along in the news segment, there was unexpected graphical footage of the deceased boy lying in the surf with waves washing over him with nobody around, and then more footage of an official standing vigil over the body in the surf, where finally a person who picked up the boy and was removing him from the beach.

You pointed out that there are “censoring/warning options” the CBC news staff could have used in its coverage – for example, using stills rather than video, and blurring the image of the child. You added that a “stern warning” about the nature of the content should have been included.

You also objected to the statement made by Wendy Mesley, the presenter of The National that night, that CBC staff had decided Canadians would want to see these images. You said:

It is appalling that the CBC would have such graphic and disrespectful content within its segment, where CBC also stated before airing it, that ‘they decided we as viewers NEEDED (sic) to see these images and video coverage’ so that Canadians could better understand.

I fail to see how a decision to show that level of graphic footage has any benefit to me, let alone other Canadians. CBC does NOT (sic) have that right to make such a decision, and should publicly apologize to its viewers.

You also said that you as a parent were not able to “make an informed decision on viewing such graphical content,” and that violates CRTC regulations.

You also stated that it would have been more of a service to Canadians if the coverage had included what might be done to “remedy the situation or provide aid as it related to the crisis.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Mark Harrison, replied to your concerns. He told you that the concerns and issues you raised in your complaint were the same ones he and news staff had discussed at some length the day of the broadcast.

He explained he and his staff debated what to broadcast and “how to shape a rapidly developing story of desperation and tragedy.” He explained that the image of this one dead child had focussed global attention on the growing crisis, and that within hours Alan Kurdi’s image “had swept around the world on social media.” He characterized the image as encapsulating the enormous risks and desperation of the migrants trying to reach Greece. He added:

It was a shocking picture, I agree with you, although not a graphic one. There was no blood or gore, just a dark-haired toddler in a bright red shirt lying face-down at the water’s edge as if asleep. The image we carried of the boy on the sand and then of his body being carried away by a Turkish police officer did not show his face. The power of the image was in what it implied, about what had happened, about the boy’s parents and the tragic circumstances that had driven their flight.

He explained the decision was made to use the images because while the photographs were disturbing, they were also “essential to understanding the story.” He pointed out that the images were not used in isolation, but were included in a larger story about the plight of refugees. He added that there is an obligation to report the news, and that can frequently include disturbing or unsettling images. He said that CBC staff is aware that “we are a guest in the homes of our viewers” and the decision to use strong content is not taken lightly. He told you that Ms. Mesley foreshadowed the use of the disturbing images in her introduction:

“Tragically”, host Wendy Mesley said, “12 people, believed to be Syrian refugees leaving Turkey for Greece, drowned”. More specifically, and presaging the images to come, she said, “and one particular photo from the scene has sparked a visceral reaction worldwide: The death of a small boy”. She added: “We are showing it tonight because words can’t always convey what pictures can”.

He said at the time he considered it adequate to let people know what was to come, but, upon reflection, a more direct warning of the “distressing nature” of the photos and videos would have better served the viewers.

REVIEW

The images of Alan Kurdi lying face down on the shoreline are heartbreaking. They are difficult to look at. In this case, that is the point. It is one thing to talk about the “plight of refugees” or the “crisis in Europe” and another to reduce it to a single disturbing image. The job of journalism is truth telling and to convey the reality of a situation, even if it is uncomfortable. The journalistic judgment to show it is based on sound principles of telling (or showing) what is known, and of storytelling. The other value that pertains, that of respecting the sensibilities of citizens watching, needs to be considered, as does respect for the grief and suffering of the people being recorded. The U.S. journalist and ethics scholar, Robert Steele, put it very well when he said that the essence of ethical decision making “inevitably involves the need to choose between two or more strongly held principles.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices lays out the considerations. This is what it says about the depiction of violence, and by extension any disturbing images:

We reflect the reality of the situations we report. We also respect the sensibilities of our viewers, listeners and readers.

Scenes of violence and suffering are part of our coverage of wars, disaster, crime and conflict.

We respect our audience by assessing the impact of our images according to time of day and the context of the program where such material is appearing.

Programmers and journalists must be familiar with CRTC regulations about the depiction of violence and adhere to those guidelines.

If it is necessary to use graphic images, we will put a warning ahead of their use.

The piece on The National did not use the video and pictures of Alan Kurdi in a sensational manner. Context does matter. Had they used them in an opening sequence or promotional segments, I would agree that it would be inappropriate. This was the opening of The National on September 2, 2015:

WENDY MESLEY: Desperate people, overwhelmed government. Has the migrant crisis reached a breaking point? Good evening, I am Wendy Mesley and this is The National. By the tens of thousands they keep coming. Afraid, exhausted and angry. They are risking their lives and the lives of their children for a chance at a future. And today, the frustration of some asylum seekers in Europe spilled out again in anger. For months, the burden of the refugee crisis from the Mid-East and Africa was left to the Mediterranean countries with accessible coastlines. But, as asylum seekers spread further inland, the rest of the continent can no longer ignore the problem.

The Italian navy and Spanish coast guard rescued more boatloads of people today. Once again, migrants scuffled with police at the Greek-Macedonian border and the Swiss army was building tents for a refugee camp. Tragically, 12 people, believed to be Syrian refugees leaving turkey for Greece, drowned. And one particular photo from the scene has sparked a visceral reaction worldwide: the death of a small boy. We are showing it tonight because words can’t always convey what pictures can. As the CBC’s Margaret Evans reports, heartbreaking scenes are playing out all across Europe.

It is at the end of this introduction, which places the death in a broader context, that the first image is used – that of the child in the arms of a soldier, with his face obscured.

Reporter Margaret Evans’s piece begins with the broader context of the problem. It focuses on the scope of the problem, and the varied European response to the tide of people arriving. It highlights the plight of people left in limbo and then moves on to the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean and the loss of lives that has occurred. She places the death of this one child in this context.

You questioned whether CBC News was in violation of CRTC regulations in showing these images. You provided a link to the CRTC’s policy on violence. In fact, the Commission notes that news coverage has a different standard:

The Commission notes the concern expressed by members of the public about the depiction of violent incidents in early evening newscasts. However, given the importance of freedom of expression in the reporting of news, the Commission will not expect news stories to be rated. The Commission is confident that the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s (RTNDA) Code of Ethics, the journalistic guidelines of individual broadcasters and the provisions in the CAB code on violence regarding the reporting of violence within news and public affairs programming will ensure that violence is depicted with sensitivity, with respect for the audience, and without exploitation, exaggeration or sensationalism. The Commission also supports the measures undertaken by broadcasters to advise viewers when graphic news stories are presented.

The reference also mentions early evening newscasts. The National is in the watershed hour, that is from 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m and is the time period reserved for adult content. No matter what the time, though, news has editorial latitude. The principle of course still holds – that viewers should be warned when there are going to be disturbing images.

There was an oblique attempt to do so when Ms. Mesley said: “And one particular photo from the scene has sparked a visceral reaction worldwide: the death of a small boy. We are showing it tonight because words can’t always convey what pictures can.” After the fact she said: “We’ve actually had a debate here and in many other newsrooms about whether to show [the image] or not, and we decided you would want to see it.” Clearly you did not want to see it – and I suspect neither did others.

But weighing public sentiment and values is a legitimate part of the journalistic judgment. The policy on offensive language states: “We respect the audience’s degree of tolerance, with due regard for society’s generally shared values.” It is fair to apply that principle in this context as well. Nevertheless, you should be given the choice to look or to turn away. The language used in the introduction was not adequate. As Mr. Harrison acknowledges, it was a little too vague.

The use of the images did not violate CBC journalistic policy. The warning that they were to be shown fell short of the mark. CBC news management and programmers might want to think about more unambiguous language that can be used when disturbing material is to be broadcast.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman