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The recent photos of Syrian refugee toddler Aylan Kurdi’s body lying face down in the sand on a Turkish beach appearing on front pages of many media shook the world.

It has sparked criticisms not only on humanity as to how much more people will donate or how many more refugees host countries can take, but also on media ethics as to whether or not such brutal images must be seen.

With an aim to delve into media practices and ethics on this issue, a discussion entitled “Media and Uses of Heartrending Images: Cases of Aylan Kurdi and Others” was held by Media Inside Out on September 10, 2015.  The talk was joined by Thai Journalists Association (TJA) president Wanchai Wongmeechai and BBC Thai senior reporter Nualnoi Thammasathien, and was moderated by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, former lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Communication Arts.

Debates about uses of the images of the three-year-old boy are not exclusively about this event but also relate to the recent Bangkok bomb at the Ratchaprasong Intersection, notes Nualnoi Thammasathien.

“In the BBC newsroom, we discussed whether or not the graphic images of the boy should be seen, as this particular subject matter is not only a child, but also a victim.  There were those who said we should not present the images and those who think such images could tell the story, depicting the severity of the problem to the world,” says BBC senior journalist Nualnoi.     

Guest speakers, from left to right, Nualnoi Thammasathien, Assoc. Prof. Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, Wanchai Wongmeechai

Social Media VS Professional Media Standards

An argument was that even if the images did not appear in mainstream media, they would have gone viral in social media anyway. “The point is we have to ask ourselves whether we need to do like others,” she points out, stressing that “professional media must set standards, and not follow trends.”

After the discussion in the BBC newsroom, the conclusion was choosing the images without the boy’s face being seen. “Using the images with his face being seen means disrespect and violation of the deceased and families. This was among difficult situations in newsroom,” she says, adding that finally, her team is delighted that graphic images of the boy is not shown.

“A much easier case is the Ratchaprasong Bomb incident.  It is apparent that the graphic images of the bomb victims should not be shown even though initially some of them were shared via social media.”

Another example is prevalent uses of images of suspects in crime re-enactment by Thai media, which is considered very unkind and a big no-no for foreign media, and deemed as violation of rights by human rights advocates, Nualnoi adds.  

Today’s media have faced increasingly challenging cases, says Assoc. Prof. Ubonrat. “Media need to be critical in choosing images. There might be reasons behind the heartrending images.  Some might think such kind of images, coupled with background of the refugees, can capture deeper pictures of what is happening with lives of millions refugees while crossing the Syrian border. Meanwhile, there are those who think such kinds of emotion-inducing images would sell well because people are eager to be informed about the news.  It is really hard for media to decide stances.”

TJA president Wanchai Wongmeechai shares that the images of the refugee toddler Aylan are heartrending for people across the world. He challenges journalists to put themselves in  other people’s shoes, imagining the feeling if the boy were among their loved ones who faced the fate, especially in today’s social media era where images are likely be circulated endlessly.  

“If we were not journalists, would we like to see such images of our loved ones being circulated?”   

Photo courtesy VOICE TV

Marketing VS Codes of Ethics

While it depends on media’s own judgment to decide which images are appropriate, journalists’ codes of ethics outlined by the National Press Council of Thailand should be used in tandem, the TJA president advices. 

He also cites Article No. 15, which stated that “Journalists shall not violate human rights of people in the news. Especially, they shall rigorously protect human rights of children, women and the underprivileged as aforementioned in the first sentence, and not to exacerbate any sorrow or tragedy of the children, women, and the underprivileged in any way.”

Amidst today’s fierce competition in gaining more and more views, marketing has an significant impact on lessening of ethics, Wanchai observes. “The worse is that some ignore the ethics. Frankly speaking, I am not sure that many journalists, in particular young journalists, know that journalists’ codes of ethics exist.”

As for the Bangkok Blast at the Ratchaprasong Intersection on September 19, 2015, at the beginning, tragic images of the deceased went viral not only via social media but also in both national and international news websites, which is apparently a breach of ethics, Wanchai explains. 

However, after a discussion among its members, coupled with direct warnings from academic members, the TJA immediately released a statement saying that spreading inappropriate images was a breach of ethics. Thus, the following day, all of such disgusting images could not be seen in mainstream media and deleted in some websites where they are formerly depicted. 

“This shows that in fact, not all journalists have journalistic spirits. Some may think only about viewing statistics or marketing benefits and forget about codes of ethics, until they are poked,

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