The Refugee Crisis: Publishing Content With Violence and Death | Meredith Beck

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As the Syrian conflict, refugee crisis, and mass migration all remain relevant topics in our news world today, journalists across the globe are presented with heartbreaking stories and, at times, gruesome topics that force them to discern whether or not they can ethically publish the content.  More specifically, photojournalists will come face to face with terrible scenes and they will have to confront the ethics in journalism when deciding if it is okay to print an image in a paper or display a photograph on a digital platform.  Where is the line between presenting the hard facts and reality of the situation and exploiting readers to unnecessary violence?

One popular image circulated in 2015 that showed the body of 3-year-old refugee Aylan Kurdi from Syria.  Days before this image went viral, photo editors worldwide were sent images of seven young children drowned on the Libyan coast, but these photos were not published.  Why was the image of Kurdi shared all across social media and multiple newspapers’ front pages and the pictures sent just days before were not?  It was because of the aesthetic of the photos.  The photo editor for a Dutch newspaper Trouw says, “Before, we only saw pictures of decayed bodies. These you simply do not show.  Aylan’s photo was the first one that made you wonder: is he asleep or is he dead?  That is why we thought it was reasonable to print this picture” (Pekel, Van de Reijt, par. 10).  However, there was still much controversy across the globe on whether or not publishing the photo was acceptable.

The Ethical Journalism Network suggests that media organizations should not immediately publish an image in a news story simply because the photo has gone viral.  “The fact a photo goes viral does not release journalists from making ethical choices. But to what extent do journalistic imperatives weigh against interests such as privacy of the subject or respect for family members?” (Pekel, Van de Reijt, par. 15).

This is when providing context and using words comes into play.  Before rushing to publish a photo, editors should consider whether it is necessary to give background information on the image, like listing the name of the photographer, or other data that could be left out.  “…Context determines how to value a photo, context that, in a digital age, needs to be examined again and again.  The work of a journalist does not stop when the photo is taken and published. Providing context is equally important.  Editorial offices need to ask themselves whether or not there is enough information to interpret what they see in the image” (Pekel, Van de Reijt, par. 26).

In the end, for some editors because the photos were shared extensively online, it validated publishing the images.  It was not the pictures themselves, but instead the fact that they were shared at such a heightened level became the news, which caused some editors to veer from their own ethical views.


Becker, J., Müller, F.C., San, O. Mural of syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi.  Retrieved from:

Economou, N. Shutterstock. Retrieved from:

Pekel, M. and Van de Reijt, M.  Ethics in the news: Refugee images.  Ethical Journalism

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