Prurience Editorial
Stabroek News
March 10, 2002

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Following a horrendous accident on the Linden Highway last week, some media houses carried either explicit footage or photographs of the carnage. The question is, can any case be made out both for recording the gruesome aspects of such a scene, and then for making those images available to the public. The answers to these questions are not as obvious as they might seem at first glance.

It should be remarked that visuals have an immediacy of impact which language does not; where a harrowing description might affect but not offend a reader, a photograph of the same scene could produce an altogether different reaction. It is as if the viewer or reader is vicariously experiencing the grisly details first-hand.

The extreme view in favour of publication is that since it has happened, it is real, and there is no reason to avoid that reality. In practice of course, photographs are taken of murder scenes for the purposes of criminal investigation and possible trial, but the fact that a murder has happened and is real, and that photographs of the victim have been taken by police photographers, does not mean that that evidence should be made widely available to the public. The general idea behind respecting the privacy of a victim is that by so doing, we are acknowledging the humanity of a once living being, and we are also respecting the feelings and thus the humanity of the victim's relatives. Such refusal to pander to prurience is also a reaffirmation of our own humanity.

Which all does not mean to say that there are not circumstances where it might not be appropriate to publish terrible pictures, and where such publication might not in a paradoxical way actually constitute an affirmation of our humanity. Hiding the footage of Hitler's death camps, for example, could have allowed those who did not want to acknowledge the unthinkable, to continue to deny it. The concentration camps, like whatever visuals have come down to us about slavery and the slave trade, force us to confront a past. The victims in such circumstances challenge us to review our own humanity, and in so doing, respect theirs.

Historical cases are much easier, of course, because we don't have that direct connection with those who have died beyond the perimeter of living memory. But there are contemporary examples where decisions have been taken to publish visual material not normally made public, for the very best possible motives.

There is the case two weeks ago, for instance, where the parents of a young heroin addict in the UK who died of an overdose, allowed photos of her terrible death to be included in a film on drug abuse for schoolchildren. They were trying to invest her wasted life with purpose, by using images of her death to save the lives of other youngsters. Educationists are doubtful about whether shock therapy is actually effective, but that is not the point here; the point is that the parents' motives related to their concern for humanity.

There are other cases which can perhaps be classed similarly, although occurring in very different contexts. Some of the shocking photographs from the Vietnam war come to mind, Again, the justification for the now famous image of the child burnt by napalm being printed, was for the American public to confront the truth about their country's involvement in Vietnam, and come to a decision about the war and/or its methods. There was, in other words, a larger humanitarian purpose to publication which had concern for this victim and other potential victims as part of its aim.

Some examples seem unusually contradictory, but can possibly withstand the same 'humanity' test. It was acceptable, for example, for the networks to show fleeting but profoundly disturbing images of people launching themselves to their deaths from the towers of the World Trade Center, but not the recovery of any remains by the rescue teams. The first was an example of to what extent the attackers had launched an assault on our common humanity, and our response in no way denigrated the victims. Remains retrieved from the bowels of the WTC, however, are individuals - people's relatives or friends - and respect for them and their loved ones demands that they be protected from public view.

In general, of course, it can be said that we are most offended by breaches of what we like to call 'good taste' when the victims are close to us. Images of bodies in Australia, for example, have far less meaning for us in Guyana than bodies on the Linden Highway. Time (as noted above) and distance, have their own ways of causing the attenuation of our emotional responses.

But what about the bodies on the Linden Highway? Could the footage and photographs of them find any justification? If the argument is shock therapy, then as noted above, researchers do not believe it works. In any case, the shock factor can only have effect once, or at the most, twice; thereafter, the publisher or broadcaster is appealing to nothing more than prurience. It is an appeal which does them no credit, does us no credit, since it appeals to our baser feelings, and causes unnecessary additional suffering to the families and friends of the victims. Surely the media can do better?