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The photo is the one taken December 3 of Ki-Suck Han an instant before a subway train struck and killed him in New York City. A drifter had pushed him onto the track, and in the few seconds before the train arrived no one stepped forward to try to lift him back onto the platform.
R. Umar Abbasi, a freelance photographer, took the picture—shooting as he ran toward the oncoming train, he said, hoping the flashes would alert the engineer—and the New York Post gave it the royal treatment. "Despicable," said a tweet collected by BuzzFeed. "Staggeringly tasteless," said another tweet. "Sickening," said a third.
In the eyes of journalists, the front page raised fundamental questions about journalistic ethics—the photographer's and the newspaper's. If you were a photo editor would you have run the photo? asked New York journalist Ken Sweet on Mizzoumafia, a Listserv shared by journalism graduates of the University of Missouri. And even more to the point, if you were a photographer on the scene "and you had the chance to possibly stop that tragedy from happening, would you? Or, if you knew it was hopeless—or possibly hopeless, what would you have done?"
"Not just the photographer, but where were the other people on the platform?" someone responded. "The photo is newsworthy, but I don't think it could have been run in good conscience given that no one was helping the man up from the subway."
Someone else pointed out that Abbasi said he was trying to help in the only way he could, being too far from Han to get to him in time. "Still, I do think it's rather sensational and inappropriate for the Post to run the shot. . . . The only newsworthiness I see is the fact that there WASN'T anyone obviously trying to help. I can't imagine that the platform was empty aside from the photographer and the victim. Have we become so apathetic as a society that we ignore people's plights in the moment and then run the pictures for profit after the fact?"
And someone wondered how the Post would have played the story if the photo didn't exist. "Would it still have been front-page worthy? Or is the shocking image the only thing that put it there?"
The Mizzou alumni by and large agreed that Abbasi should not be judged, but the Post, which had had time to think about what it was doing, should and could. "The Post took a story full of desperation, difficult decisions and attempts for help," said one alumnus, "and turned it into a shock-for-traffic tabloid cover." Said another, "If I thought the Post was trying to incite thoughtful debate about where a journalist stops working at a scene to help someone, that would be one thing. But they ran the photo to drive sales, not create intelligent discussion on ethics. Pure exploitation."
Yet the Post did incite a thoughtful debate—on Mizzoumafia and many another forum. And not despite its sensationalism but because of it. Shouldn't that count for anything? Would the New York Times have been cut some slack if the same photo had shown up on its front page, since inciting thoughtful debate is what the Times is all about? Last Saturday Joe Nocera, a Times op-ed columnist reacting to the Post's front page, weighed in with a thoughtful discussion of human behaviorism. He brought up the "diffusion of responsibility"—the inclination of a single face in a crowd to think it's not up to me. The platform was full when Han died. The New York subway platform was nearly empty in January 2007 when Wesley Autrey, a construction worker, saved a man who'd fallen onto the tracks by jumping after him and pushing him to safety.
The other precedent Nocera cited was, inevitably, the murder of Kitty Genovese, stabbed to death in Queens in 1964. Dozens of people in surrounding apartments could hear her screams, but no one came to her aid or even called the police.
As 48 years later we're still talking about Kitty Genovese, how can we doubt the newsworthiness of the death of Ki-Suck Han? And doesn't the photo of Han about to die, with not a single other person near enough to share the picture with him, convey the essence of what makes his death newsworthy? Yes, it's hard to look at. Death frequently is. And so, sometimes, is human nature.
When it's up to you because there's no one else, people often come through. And when it's up to you because it's the job you're paid to do, people often come through. Firemen climb the staircases of burning buildings and flight attendants soothe passengers in crashing planes because their work dictates their actions. Duty ennobles.
And perhaps Wesley Autrey saved a life not only because it was Autrey or nobody but also because he was the sort of fellow who likes to imagine the worst. Perhaps he'd stood on many a New York subway platform morbidly asking himself what would I do if I fell off? and observed the hollow in the subway floor between the rails. Perhaps when the time came he responded because the response did not seem suicidal: he'd already worked out a way to survive on the tracks.
Most people don't like to imagine the worst and don't like to look at it. A front page like the New York Post's breaks through the barriers we erect to keep away more reality than we care to think about. Sickening? Yes. But tasteless? Good taste, whatever that is, doesn't deserve veto power over journalism.