By Layan Doueik
LAU Tribune staff
Sitting in my Media Law and Ethics class, I was shocked to watch the video of the so-called “King of Kings” Mo’ammar Gaddafi being kicked, humiliated and gradually murdered at the hands of Libyan rebels. No matter how hard I try to describe the disturbing images using text, watching the actual video is a different story.
Were television outlets right in broadcasting such images to the general public? According to media ethics scholars Michael Emery and Ted Curtis Smythe, images evoke almost immediate emotional responses from viewers.
“With well-chosen words, visual messages combine to educate, entertain and persuade,” the two academics wrote. But this power is also used to offend, shock, mislead and confuse audiences. It also reinforces recurring stereotypes.
Kaddafi’s video stirred up opposing opinions in class, questioning or upholding the morality of broadcasting such violent and disquieting images on air.
Hiba Salami, a 20-year-old journalism student, strictly refused the videos. “It is true that he was a cruel criminal and dictator but that doesn’t mean we act in the same way and correct the mistake using another one,” she said.
Zeina Shehayeb, a 21-year-old journalism senior believes videos such as Kaddafi’s death should be open to all viewers. “Kaddafi deserves it and let this video be a model to all dictators like him.”
Reine Azzi, moral reasoning instructor at LAU believes that, according to German philosopher Emmanuel Kant, people should have value in themselves and not be treated as means to an end.
“Which is what happens in some cases when bloody, gory photos are ‘used’ as a means to a personal end, either on the part of the photographer, the newspaper or TV station,” Azzi said.
On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk, sat in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection and set himself on fire. His self‐burning was caught in an award‐winning series of photographs by Malcolm Browne.
The “Burning Monk” picture is now recognized as one of the most powerful visual images of its time. It became an icon many Americans perceive as a catalyst behind the end of the war.
Following the tragic photo of the self-immolating monk, the “kick-or-click” theory was introduced. It speaks of the dilemma photojournalists have when they must decide whether to “click” the camera and grab a powerful picture or “kick” the gasoline bottle, or in other words help the people in need.
Albert Saikaly, photography instructor at LAU, pointed out that there is no black-or-white answer as it all depends on the situation.
“In order to have a greater impact and help the community, I would rather take the picture of someone suffering rather than helping him,” Saikaly said. “Should I help the million starving children and prolong their agony?”
Emery and Smythe noted that photojournalists who won Pulitzer Prizes and other international competitions are almost always the ones who took snapshots of horrifically painful human tragedies –instead of helping.
“It is as if viewers want to see violent pictures, but through gaps in the fingers in front of their face,” the authors said.
Mazen Hachem, Al-Jazeera cameraman, filmed the recent tumultuous events in Lebanon, beginning with Hariri’s assassination and ending with the recent clashes in Tripoli and the North. He talked about respecting the privacy of dead people while taking pictures for the English Al-Jazeera.
“Al-Jazeera Arabic broadcasts all kinds of violent visuals, unlike Al-Jazeera English,” Hachem said. “Arab audiences got used to violence since that is what they face in their daily lives.”
Hachem believes that, when camerapersons hold their cameras in the field, they lose all sense of sympathy and become numb.
“The lens of my camera becomes my own eyes, though sometimes after I finish my job I can’t look at the pictures that I have taken,” he admitted.
Bassam Hatoum, Associated Press (AP) cameraperson, agrees with his Al-Jazeera colleague that European and American audiences do not tolerate violent and bloody images so “we examine every photo before broadcasting it.”
Nevertheless, Hatoum’s approach to the “kick-or-click” decision is different. He said he would rather lose the prize or the story to help the people in need.
“Once, recently, when the Palestinian envoys where shot in South Lebanon and I was there taking pictures, I couldn’t but leave my camera and go help the injured people,” he said.
Saikaly believes that the ethics of visuals are a very important matter that the photographer, editor and the news outlet should be aware of. “I teach my students that whatever they think is right to shoot can be shot,” he said.
Azzi, on the other hand, noted the desensitization audiences are falling victim to. “It sometimes causes headlines and photos to scream such images at us to grab our attention,” she said.
She added it may also be due to the apathy many might show if events are of no immediate concern.
For Emery and Smythe, violence and tragedy is the trademark of American journalism. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a popular slogan among many US journalists. The reason, the authors argue, is that a majority of viewers are intrigued by such stories.
Saikaly admitted that he teaches photography and not photojournalism specifically because he doesn’t want to go into the misery of people. “I would rather take a picture of a beautiful sexy lady than a dying child, because whatever you see affects you,” he said