New York Post Subway Death Photo: Unethical Or Just Tasteless?

on December 04 2012 2:47 PM

If the New York Post was looking to stir a reaction on Tuesday when it published a cover photo of a Queens man minutes before he was struck and killed by a subway train, the paper got its wish.

The photo, which ran under the fatalistic headline “this man is about to die,” sparked fierce reactions across Twitter, where users described it as “harsh,” “sickening” and “just wrong.”

Ki Suk Han, 58, was struck by a downtown-bound Q train on Monday afternoon after allegedly being pushed onto the tracks by a panhandler. The incident took place at the Times Square station, where Han sustained serious injuries. He was later pronounced dead at Roosevelt Hospital.

Some tweeters faulted the freelance photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, for not jumping in -- Wesley Autrey style -- and saving Han.

“Whoever took the picture that’s on the cover of the NY Post should be arrested for not helping the dude that got killed,” posted one user.

Abbasi, for his part, claimed he was using his flash to warn the subway conductor seconds before the train “crushed him like a rag doll.” “I just started running, running, hoping that the driver could see my flash,” he said in the Post story.

Not everyone is buying that explanation, however. “Getting a conductor’s attention with a flash -- and maybe even blinding him with it -- doesn’t seem like the way you'd necessarily help someone that's clinging to the subway platform,” wrote the Atlantic’s Alexander Abad-Santos in a Tuesday blog post.

The Post did not respond to a request for comment.

Whether Abbasi was acting as a concerned citizen or opportunistic shutterbug is open to debate. Surely citizens aren’t obligated to risk their own lives to help someone in peril, and Abbasi was clearly not the only one who didn’t pull Han to safety.  

The larger question, however, is whether it was ethical for the Post to publish the photo of a man who is about to die a horrible death. Kevin Z. Smith, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee, doesn’t think so. Smith saw the photo early Tuesday morning and told IBTimes he had to double check to make sure it wasn't Photoshopped.

“I was astounded,” he said in a phone interview. “It defies any sense of professional, moral or ethical judgment.”

Smith cites the “Minimize Harm” section of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, a set of working guidelines voluntarily adopted by journalism schools and many working journalists. The section advises journalists to show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. It also says to avoid pandering to “lurid curiosity” and to show “good taste” when covering gruesome subjects.

“You have to ask yourself what’s your motivation for publishing the photo,” he said. “Is it just to make a sport out of it? Was anyone at the New York Post asking how this man’s widow is going to feel?”

Smith said he finds it particularly disconcerting that the front-page photo and headline made it all the way up the chain of editorial command without someone axing the idea. And he doesn’t let the freelance photographer off the hook either. “You find yourself in possession of a photo like this and your instinct is to sell it?” he said. “There are so many levels of ethical lapses here, it’s disturbing.”

But in the case of the Post's decision to run this photo, there is no real penalty for the alleged ethical lapse -- just public scrutiny and outrage, which can only drive more eyes to the photo on the Post's website. 

Gruesome imagery is increasingly becoming a part of the everyday news cycle in an age when each of us is equipped with a portable camera at all times. Now more than ever, professional and citizen journalists alike are capturing everything from altercations to police beatings to homicides. That, combined with news outlets’ ever-growing appetite for readers and ratings, means there will always be temptation for journalists to opt for the easy shock.

The Post, Smith said, did just that, and he condemns its staff for not exercising better judgment when they had the chance. “If their intent was to get attention, well, congratulations. They’ve done it,” he added. “I'm glad the New York Post is taking an incredible amount of heat for this. They deserve it. I would hope there's somebody at that paper who realizes now what a horrible mistake this was.”

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