Capturing the Syrian Crisis

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Is the shocking photo of a drowned toddler necessary to bring attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, or is it just distasteful jingoism?

Tiffany Frandsen | Managing Editor | @Tiffany_mf

Nilufer Demir snapped the photo of a drowned 3-year-old who had surfaced on a Turkish shore after he and his family attempted to escape the slaughter of the ongoing Syrian crisis. The horrific image sparked two media frenzies—the ethics of the photo itself, and the urging of governments to accept refugees.

While the refugee situation is being debated in government buildings and on social media feeds, the ethics of whether the photo should have been shared at all are being debated between journalists and editors, prompting several outlets to defend their choice to publish.

First, some background: Publishing a photo of a child is risky business. Publishing a graphic image is also risky business, if not handled correctly. This photo combined the two.

For most of the world—really, anyone who doesn’t know the family—it’s heartbreaking because when they see the photo, it reminds them of their own children or they see children in life-threatening danger. For the 3-year-old’s father, it’s heartbreaking because it is a photo of his own child.

Since Sept. 2, when Turkish news agency Dogan Haber Ajansi published the photo, Abdullah Kurdi has expressed no negative feelings about his son’s image being circulated, and has said that having the world’s attention on the crisis of the refugees will help prevent this from happening. But if that weren’t true, it’s quite a bit of harm done to him seeing the photo everywhere. A description is different—it’s not so instantaneous. But avoiding the photo online would prove to be much more of a minefield.

Some users on Twitter opposed the publication and the retweeting of the photo on the grounds that it didn’t respect the toddler’s dignity and it didn’t respect the family’s privacy. And while plenty of news outlets and journalists are sharing the photo for the purpose of showing how brutal the reality of trying to escape Syria is, there will, of course, be outlets who use the photo for cheap hits.

It has brought the spotlight back onto an interesting aspect of the Syrian massacre—refugees leaving the ravaged country. The attention has faded since the beginning of the conflict four years ago because of how dangerous it is to be a reporter in Syria. With the number of correspondents in Syria dwindling, the amount of news coming out of Syria similarly dwindles. Interestingly, the attention hasn’t been on negotiations to stop the bombing. Or implementing a no-fly zone over Syria. Or doing something to prevent the killing of Syrian civilians.

Any skeevy, greedy publishers aside, it’s a story that needed attention. The photo gave the story attention.

The point of journalism is to tell about these stories and images are more poignant than words. Journalists need to not shy away from things that are difficult to look at or to talk about if they are newsworthy. The catch-22 many Syrians are facing now is newsworthy: stay and risk death during a bomb strike from the country’s own government, or risk death fleeing the country for a better life.

The photo sparked an anger in the international community that has further opened borders to other Syrian refugees—Canada Immigration Minister Christopher Alexander has said they will increase their immigration cap and welcome 10,000 over the next three years, up from the 1,300 this year. The United States will welcome 10,000, with Secretary of State John Kerry working to increase that number.

I am in favor of countries accepting people who are trying to escape the brutality of their homes and lives being decimated. And I’m curious as to why this conversation hasn’t been focusing on how to stop their homes and lives from being decimated.