TV accords more respect to victims in U.S.

Images are horrifying, but media show more restraint than in tsunami

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The corpse of an elderly woman slumped in her wheelchair in the New Orleans Civic Center. A man's body, covered by a soiled sheet, at the side of a Mississippi highway. A bloated body floating face down on a flooded New Orleans street.

These are a few of the horrifying images that in the past five days have streamed across television screens. But in certain ways they do not represent the worst pictures gathered by the major networks and cable news organizations during the coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

In fact, when compared with last December's coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed an estimated 300,000 people, American television reporting on Katrina reflects an instinctive recoiling and institutionalized restraint when it comes to depicting Americans during tragedy and in death.

"What's striking is that we have two natural disasters within six months or so of each other, and the coverage is just so remarkably different," said Susan D. Moeller, a University of Maryland professor of photo-journalism and author of the 1999 book, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disaster, Famine, War & Death.

"If we believe we saw appropriate coverage in terms of fairness and accuracy with the tsunami, then what does that say about what we're seeing today?"

Moeller believes American news organizations routinely treat American victims with more respect than they do "others" around the world. The difference between coverage of the two natural disasters lies in the degree to which personal grieving and suffering are depicted and the degree of intimacy with which death is portrayed.

Although American viewers have seen deeply moving images of devastation, suffering and loss, most pictures have maintained a degree of distance between the viewer (the camera lens) and photographic subject.

Unlike in the aftermath of the tsunami, American viewers this week have not seen close-up images of mothers, their faces twisted with grief as they keen over the bodies of children. Nor have viewers seen row upon row of identifiable American bodies laid out in parking lots, hospitals or morgues. The corpses that have been shown on American television all have had their faces covered or have been photographed from such a distance as to be unrecognizable.

There's a "history" of photographing from a distance or covering the faces of dead Americans in such tragedies, Moeller said. "But what's so remarkably different is that the images of grief and trauma among the living - grief of losing property, homes and loved ones - are also much more literally and emotionally distant. The close-ups of victims are not as tight in the Katrina pictures as they were in the tsunami, and the emotions that are captured are not as extreme. You don't see people keening over dead bodies. And I don't believe it's because the emotions are different in the two terrible events."

There are similarities between the TV images of the destruction left by both the tsunami and Katrina, but they are found predominantly in wide-angle, overhead shots from airplanes or helicopters that attempt to capture the breadth of the destruction. On the ground - with the chance to get close to the dead and grieving - the self-censorship begins.

Network and cable news organizations acknowledged withholding certain images out of "respect" for the dead and any relatives who might recognize a corpse on TV and be further traumatized by seeing it.

"This is a story that has some horrific elements to it, and we are telling what's happening on the ground. But we're trying to show restraint in terms of just good taste as we tell that story," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president for news coverage at CBS News.

McGinnis noted an image that CBS chose not to air: of a severed and bloated head found by residents searching for food in a pile of debris in downtown New Orleans. "It might sound odd to use the term `good taste' in a situation where thousands of people are having these horrible times, but the fact of the matter is that there are degrees of taste. And to show the horribly contorted face of a dead man doesn't forward this story any more than the body of dead person covered in a sheet, which I don't have a problem with."

At NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, producers chose not to broadcast the image of an uncovered body of a dead woman abandoned in a shopping cart. "We can show the shopping cart with the body covered in such a way that you can't see there's a body in there. And we can say there's a body in there. But we don't have to show the body," said John Reiss, executive producer.

Reiss described a similar decision made earlier in the week when Williams came upon the corpse of a murder victim near the Superdome: "We talked about what we could show, and I said, `Let's just show the legs - and from a distance. We certainly don't need to see the face. The shot will convey the horror of the situation without being more upsetting than it needs to be.' ... We air at the dinner hour."

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