Editor’s note: This story contains images that some readers may find disturbing.
Journalist Julia Le Duc photographed the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, as they lay on the bank of the Rio Grande. They were trying to cross the river from Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville, Texas, but drowned in the current.
The photo shows Ramírez’s and Valeria’s bodies lying face down. Valeria is tucked inside her father’s black T-shirt. The image first appeared in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada and has since been distributed by The Associated Press. The shocking image has caused outcry on social media and renewed focus on immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. News organizations have faced difficult decisions about how to present the disturbing image.
“The power in this image speaks to the current reality in the U.S. and around the world of the plight of immigrants,” said the Rev. Kenny Irby, an independent visual consultant with more than 40 years of experience in journalism and education. “It’s an authentic truth that needs to be part of the narrative.”
“There is no question this photo has news value,” said Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute. “I would be more surprised if news organizations were not publishing the photo than if they were publishing it.”
McBride, co-host of the Everyday Ethics podcast, says that she is fielding questions from news organizations that are agonizing over how to share this image with their audience on multiple platforms ranging from television to social media to mobile pushes.
But this hasn’t always been the case.
“There was a time when dead-body pictures were taboo in newspapers,” Irby said. But attitudes and media consumption have changed, and some people expect to see graphic images. Irby says that seeing these images can help inform audiences “to make decisions to prevent future tragedies and … future loss of life.”
Interviewing the surviving family, providing context and naming the people in graphic photos are ways to mitigate the harm publishing the photo can do, according to McBride. Overusing the photo can lessen its impact while also unnecessarily upsetting the audience. “As you get further out [from when the photo was made] you have to specifically articulate the photo again,” she says.
Similar ethical questions were raised in 2015 when 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi was found dead in Turkey after fleeing Syria with his family. Both McBride and Irby believe that the photo of Ramírez and Valeria will resonate with the public because of the subject matter and the proximity to the U.S. But McBride points out that “if you look at the photo of Aylan Kurdi, not a lot has changed.”
With so many channels to see the same graphic image, there is concern that people could be desensitized to this type of imagery. In the current media environment “it’s much easier to look away and not look because there’s so much else to look at,” McBride says. “It’s a lot easier to forget because there is something just as shocking later on.”