Photograph of an infant starved to death

24 March 1999

EPC raised a question concerning the compliance of a photograph which accompanied an article published in Sõnumileht on 27 October 1998 headlined “Child killers go to prison” with good journalistic practice.

A large-scale color photograph depicts an infant starved to death. The same edition carries a small picture of a man who had committed suicide by hanging.

EPC states that both print media and television tend to depict the victims of crime quite often and therefore EPC deems it necessary to express its general view on this matter.

When publishing a photograph or video material of a corpse the journalist should seriously weigh its news value. Showing a photograph or film is justified in case the material carries an aesthetic value or a social message (which gives the material its generalizing quality: e.g. a Vietnamese child burnt with napalm) but also when the deceased needs to be identified. But that should be done with all respect towards death, the victim, his/hers family as well as the public. Displaying photographs of corpses unreasonably often and in every possible occasion dulls the public’s social sensitivity and that diminishes the effect of the photographs and films to come.

It can be observed that more and more newspapers use investigation materials from the police and court files. It should be mentioned that it could lead to the confusion of discourses: the purpose of police photographs differs greatly from the purpose of the visual materials needed in journalism. The photographs and videos meant for finding out accuracy and truth during the investigation do not and should not possess a generalizing effect.

When depicting dead bodies the victim’s family must be considered. In case the victim is identifiable the consent of the family is usually required to avoid intrusion into the family’s grief. If the photograph of the dead body carries enormous generalizing effect or it is inevitable to publish it due to some other reason the family should be at least informed of this intention beforehand. Otherwise the publication of the materials should not be allowed.

As regards the photograph published in Sõnumileht EPC considers it an unreasonable display of violent death with no generalizing effect. Thus, Sõnumileht has breached good journalistic practice.

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