Public’s taste for gory war photo questioned

The Public Prize at this year’s Bayeaux Calvados Awards for War Reporting made many question the purpose of broadcasting terror.

By Lucy Hinton

The singing mingled with the soft crackle of a campfire. They praised their kings and warriors, whilst roasting some freshly caught game. Various recounts of war told through ballads, songs and poems. This is how the Celts reported terror and triumph centuries ago.

Four men hold down another man in a khaki jacket. Two push his head to the ground; two pin down his hands, and the other holds a knife to his throat. His mouth is slightly ajar, and body appears to be tense. The photo is shown alongside ten other photographs of war, to a jury composed of volunteers from across the globe.

The jury voted it the best.

Graphic photos turned heads

This photo was one from a series titled ‘Syrian Execution’ by Turkish photojournalist Emin Ozman. It showed the decapitation of four Syrian soldiers by militant Islamic forces, and won the Public Prize at the 2014 Bayeaux Calvados Awards for War Reporting.

The annual event is designed to recognize and pay tribute to journalists who work in hazardous conditions and provide the public with information.

Both judges and candidates were disappointed with the publics decision, and wondered why the photo was even on the short list presented to the public jury, says BBC journalist Lyse Doucet.

“I am shocked and saddened,” said Ammar Abd Rabbo, a French-Syrian photojournalist who was a member of the journalist’s panel.

“This is not ‘reportage’,” he wrote in a blog post, “this is propaganda. Journalists must investigate, give perspective, verify facts.”

Even Ozmen found the images difficult to view.

“I did not want to look,” he said, when accepting his award on stage, “but I wanted the whole world to see the cruelty of the Islamic army (now ISIS).”

The medias role in portraying terror

The prize sparked an impassioned discussion among journalists over what should and shouldn’t be broadcast to the public. Many, including Abd Rabbo, argued that by showing grotesque images, journalists are helping terrorists to create and intensify global fear.

Thomas Ubbesen, roving reporter for Danish Broadcasting Corporation, says the responsibility lies with the editors.

“If the editors put grotesque stories, such as the beheading of [American journalist] James Foley, as top news, then they are responsible for scaring their audiences and instilling fear, thus aiding the terrorists,” says Ubbesen.

“Everyone has seen a dead body. Airing death and torture on television does not make your audience any wiser,” he says, “Denmark never used to show these images, I don’t know why the attitude has changed, but it needs to stop.”

Professor of Communications, Political Science and Global and International Studies, Michael Stohl says this problem cannot be avoided in a democratic society.

“Governments need to think about the multiple audiences for their counter messages and how to present security and information concerns to their publics,” he says, “both governments and journalists must, therefore, consider the problem carefully.”

Foley’s parents were present at the awards ceremony, and given a standing ovation.

The power of choice

When asked how be believed the jury had come to its decision this year, British journalist and judge Jon Swain said; “In the end, you choose the story you will remember.”

The Celt’s chose what to remember of war orally, and passed these views on from generation to generation. Similarly, images and videos of war today will be available for decades to come. Doucet recognizes that journalists play a pivotal role in how the war on terror is remembered. Yet, she also fears that the public will decide that they want something more horrific.

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