Johann van Tonder

To view or not to view

2004-07-23 13:57

A few weeks ago, I was chastised by some News24 users and a local talk show host for showing the infamous video of Nic Berg's beheading to my journalism class, an experience that I shared with readers of this column.

I also expressed at the time that my rationale was to create a simulated newsroom experience, with the intention of preparing future editors to deal with this category of increasingly violent material.

Despite all the criticism levelled at my decision, the column, Things you shouldn't see, may as well have read Things that people want to see - desperately.

Recent research into internet usage in the USA (War images divide America) during the Iraq war found that about half of the respondents condemned the posting of those images that most newspapers considered too graphic to use. Nonetheless, at least a quarter of internet users during that same period went online with the specific purpose of viewing graphic pictures.

Soon after the news about the existence of the Berg beheading video broke, it became the single most searched for item on the internet as search engines and news portals, such as News24, recorded an unprecedented demand for the footage.

Complaints about my screening of the video reminded me of the hoards of people always hanging around at motor vehicle accident scenes: there is an insatiable demand for the drama and emotion associated with them. But just try to publish a picture of one...

When Die Burger recently ran a photograph of a crash showing the last moments between a mother and her dying daughter, readers objected. "There is no excuse to be offered on behalf of journalism for printing this photograph," one person protested. Prior to this, the same newspaper used a photograph, on the front page, of a dead baby in Iraq: the result of the war's 'collateral damage'. Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions, saying that this was something they prefer not to see.

Dr George Claassen, Die Burger's ombudsman, explained that a constantly recurring question in the minds of photojournalists was whether they are dealing with an issue people need to know about, should know about, or merely want to know about.

It might be argued that an emotive photograph, such as the one of the grieving mother, serves to raise awareness of the tragic results of the high accident rate on South African roads. The emergency services certainly believe that there is a need to inform motorists of the outcomes of irresponsible behaviour behind the wheel. I recall being invited by the emergency services to spend time with them while "crash-hopping", during the perilous holiday season, to show motorists - the public - the full, graphic impact of their bad driving.

Personally, I don't regard photographs of accidents as having much news value unless there is some extraordinary angle to the story: they have simply become too commonplace. When editors make decisions about this, it becomes a matter of news value, informed by their guidelines on ethics.

News value is one thing. Public interest and demand is another matter entirely, and it seems that hypocrisy resides in this same camp.

Time and time again, we turn to gawk at accidents that we pass on the road. Some of us, with the advent of information technology, take this almost congenital fascination a step further and seek out detailed images of horror.

It reminds me of a movie review in which the reviewer compared watching the film to being a bystander at a traffic accident: "You know you should look away, but somehow you just can't".

While research shows us how hungry we've become for graphic material, we in the media will continue to be blamed for serving it when we deem it ethically justifiable.

It is simply too easy to shoot the messenger.

Send your comments on this column to Johann

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer, and was previously photo editor at Die Burger. He lectures in photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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