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New York Times refuses to apologise to Media Council of Kenya

A screengrab of the New York Times article that used graphic pictures of the Nairobi terror attack.

The New York Times will set up a team to review the policy on publication of graphic images, its editors have said.

The move follows a flurry of  condemnations from Kenyans after the American newspaper published online distasteful pictures of 14 Riverside Drive terror attack victims.

In the photos — credited to Associated Press photographer Khalil Senusi— bodies of victims at the Secret Garden Restaurant at the Dusit complex are shown slumped on chairs and covered in blood.

On Thursday, the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) wrote to the New York Times Bureau Chief in Nairobi demanding an apology over the usage of the images.

“Take note, in the event the pictures are not pulled down, within 24 hours as requested, MCK will initiate relevant action against your publication, not limited to revocation or suspension of accreditation of journalists working for New York Times in Kenya. You are hereby required to inform the council of your action within 48 hours and not later than January 21, 2019,” MCK’s Chief Executive Officer David Omwoyo wrote.

The newspaper did not. Instead, it offered a justification for using the graphic images.

NYT director of photography Meaghan Looram said, “…our role as journalists to document the impact of violence in the world, and if we avoid publishing these types of images, we contribute to obscuring the effects of violence and making debates over security and terrorism bloodless”.

Here is an excerpt  explaining their decision to readers’ comments and questions.

What considerations went into choosing the photos in this article? Why did you decide to run the image of dead bodies?

MEAGHAN LOORAM Let me first say that editors in New York made the decision on which images to publish with the story. Our reporter did not have any input into this decision.

Our editors always take into consideration the newsworthiness of the story and our responsibility to our readers to honestly convey the events of the world, horrific and disturbing as those events may sometimes be.

We look at the universe of images available from any given event, and we try to make a decision that both serves our readers and respects the dignity of those affected by the attack or event.

Generally, we try to avoid identifying victims or showing unnecessary blood and gore, particularly if it is not central to the news story that the photograph accompanies.

But it is an important part of our role as journalists to document the impact of violence in the world, and if we avoid publishing these types of images, we contribute to obscuring the effects of violence and making debates over security and terrorism bloodless.

We believe that our coverage contributes to national and global discussions on national security, foreign policy, America’s role in international conflicts, gun violence and terror. If we shy away from showing the real consequences of some of these policies, then we are doing our readers, and even those who make some of these policy decisions, a disservice.

This year, some of the most disturbing and moving images we published showed starving children in Yemen, a consequence of a years-long war. Senator Dick Durbin brought an enlarged poster of Tyler Hicks’s photograph of Amal Hussein, a 7-year-old girl who ultimately died of starvation, to the floor of Congress to argue for withdrawal of United States support for this conflict. The Senate later voted to withdraw American aid, the Saudi-led coalition paused its offensive, and peace talks began.

But these decisions are always tough.

MARC LACEY To give you a sense of how difficult these decisions are, there are people in the newsroom who felt in retrospect that we shouldn’t have run the Nairobi photo.

At one point early on, the top photo on the article was the one with dead bodies in it. When and why was it changed?

LOORAM One of the considerations we weigh in publishing images like this is the prominence of the photo’s placement on our platforms and on social media.

In this situation, we did not promote the photo on our social media accounts because it was so disturbing. As we listened to our readers’ concerns about the photo, we also decided to move the image to a less prominent position in the article.

A reader asked: “Do you apply the same rules to your reporting on mass shootings in the United States and terrorist attacks in the West as you do to attacks in other parts of the world? [Some readers have accused The Times of publishing far fewer graphic images of victims who are white or non-Western.]

LOORAM We do endeavour to apply the same rules to our choice of images from attacks in any part of the world. But these are weighty decisions, considered on a case-by-case basis by individuals.

It is important that as journalists, we carefully evaluate whether or not we may be applying any unconscious bias or varying standards to these decisions.

We have published images of victims of crime and terror attacks in the United States and other Western countries, including in this article from the Las Vegas shooting and this image from a crime scene in New York City. And here’s one, even further back, from the Oklahoma City bombing.

Our editors are only dealing with the universe of photographs that are available from any given news event. Press photographers in the United States and other Western countries do not always have the same access to crime scenes as those in the developing world.

I personally can’t recall having seen any images of victims of school shootings in the United States, so it is difficult to compare the two scenarios.

LACEY If you go through the archives of The New York Times, you can find a number of photographs that depict dead Americans. They’re there, as Meaghan pointed out. But I do think we can do a better job of having consistent standards that apply across the world.

The Times is a global news organization with readers everywhere. Gone are the days in which we can view our audience as an American one. We ought to make our standards decisions without regard to nationality. If we believe a particular type of photograph or article is too sensitive for an American audience, we ought to apply that same standard to a Kenyan audience, and a French one and a Mexican one.

How does the fact that more than 70 percent of our audience is in the United States play into our calculations? If we thought we had a mostly Kenyan audience, would we have published the same photo?

LOORAM Historically, I think that American news organizations did tend to consider only a local or national audience, and thus may have applied different standards to material from locations broadly thought to be remote or “over there,” rather than close to home. I do think that as a global news organization, we must try to let go of this notion and make decisions based on the fact that we serve a global audience.

LACEY I lived in Kenya for five years, and I have numerous friends who still live there. My immediate thought when I heard of this attack was whether someone I knew might be a victim. For me, this was not some faraway attack. It was a horrible incident in a place I knew well.

Do we have a consistent policy for the publication of graphic images? If not, are there plans to implement one?

LACEY As a result of the concerns from our readers that this photo raised, we’re going to convene a group of people to come up with clearer guidelines. I am going to be part of that effort.

LOORAM The group of journalists Marc is referring to will draft a guide for editors who are faced with making these kinds of consequential decisions.

As part of this process, we will create a set of questions to consider before publishing sensitive images. We must weigh our responsibility as journalists to help our readers see and understand the reality of the world with sensitivity to the victims and their families. We take both of these responsibilities very seriously.

It is also crucial to me as the director of photography that our editors are cognizant of issues of representation of people of colour. We must not apply different standards, or give less consideration, to the dignity and humanity and pain of any group of people.