At about 2.00 a.m. on Saturday January 26, 11 persons, including five children, were murdered as they slept at their homes in the rural district of Lusignan in Guyana. The murderers are still at large.
The following day, the Kaieteur News newspaper carried extensive coverage of the story which included interviews with the families of the victims and testimonies from those who were injured who had escaped with their lives.
The newspaper also published graphic photographs of the bodies of those slain. One shot showed the intestines of a child spilling out onto the bed on which he lay.
There has been lively debate on the listserv of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) on the issue. Here are my views, followed by the submission of Barbadian journalist, Julius Gittens.
This is a very interesting discussion that we perhaps need to bring around the table next time we (ACM) meet as a group.
In the meantime, it would be interesting to receive views from those among us who have served as newsroom leaders and who would have had to confront the issue of how to treat graphic content in our television newscasts and newspapers.
My own view is that in newspapers, photographs and copy come together in a cohesive fashion to tell a story. Photographs fill informational gaps and ensure
the entire story is told. In some instances, it might be the other way around and, perhaps, we are not seeing enough journalistic photo essays. We certainly
have the quality photo-journalists around to do so.
Strict adherence to a notion of “good taste” apart – and we always have the option to determine what constitutes “good taste” as news organisations – we probably need to ask the questions: What does photographic content add to the story that has not already been told in the main body of the text? Do the photographs also provide further proof of an assertion in the story?
There are also decisions to be made about photographic treatment and whether it is necessary, in the context of what is already known and proven, to publish one angle of the shot and not another.
As well, unlike television where there might be some advance warning, the newspaper reader does not have the option not to view the pictures
In my view, if these questions/issues were not considered by the editor of the Kaieteur News, today’s front page would not have been the product of thoughtful, professional journalism.
In the United States, there is a growing body of literature on this subject in the context of the invasion of Iraq. We need to start recording our own well-considered thoughts in books and blogs and listservs like this on an area that poses episodic but important challenges to our understanding of how Caribbean journalism is practised.
Meanwhile, would I, as a newspaper editor, have carried the photographs published in the Kaieteur News?
This now is the submission of Julius Gittens:
This may very well do no one any good either.
One of the insightful, and troubling, aspects of today's newspaper journalism is its portability. Thanks to Internet, we can react with shock, horror and revulsion in our far-flung capitals. Then we go watch the Oscar-nominated No Country for Old Men, which was rewarded with a Golden Globe (an award by Hollywood's foreign press corps). Violence means nothing to us when we are removed from it. I recall being singular in feeling the revulsion and pain by Visnews images of death in the Iran-Iraq and Russo-Afghan Wars of the 1980s but marvel at the entire globe's disgust over Al-Jazeera video of one American G.I. being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. We can now behave like we've never left home or become unofficial citizens of somebody else's country because we can read their all papers, hear all their radio stations and see all their tv stations online, 24-7.
Can the editors and publishers of the Kaieteur News say that such violence means nothing to them, that's it's just a juicy story? Not one of us who write to express our pain of seeing the pictures has a better close-up view of a Guyana that is slowly drowning in a tide of ethnic bloodletting: five of their colleagues were lined up and executed. Kaieteur News reporters have been threatened, not with badge-of-honour death threats, but with promises that the journalists have no illusions about.
So I'm afraid we might very well have to toss out the knee-jerk response that the Kaieteur News folks just wanna sell papers.
Until just the other day, Lusignan qualified for that quintessential tabloid listing as 'sleepy hamlet'. The kids spend most of their spare time practising golf swings with the odd shared seven-iron, when they're not working as caddies at the nearby course, the only one in the nation. Golf has a way of breeding a rather polite, even needlessly deferential lot. They could have been running around with one or two used Kalashnikovs but no, sorry, nothing more lethal than a 3-iron. Plain-speaking, persistent, keen, genteel. Kids.
So in a very local sense, could it be the Kaieteur News folk did what they thought they had to do - reach their readers, fellow Guyanese, for whom the shedding of blood in Buxton or Eccles is, as it is for us, distance learning?
I cannot so easily condemn the Kaieteur News folks, knowing full well the enormous grief and suffering I might go through if the carnage was of my own kin. Or just maybe, as I've known in my own practice to happen, maybe the relatives might order up or keep copies of this edition, just so they could show their friends and foes what bullets at near supersonic speed do to human beings, especially their own flesh and blood.
The violence in Guyana is a complex story. Our understanding of it and the reasons why a bunch of journalists felt they had to violate somebody's breakfast to help others understand it perhaps also needs to be complex.
So, would I as an editor of the Kaieteur News run those photos? I don't know. I don't live in the Guyana of January 2008. Would I try every conceivable way of meeting the public's need or right to know? Hell yes.
Julius P.A. Gittens, MA
PO Box W1167
St John's ANTIGUA, West Indies
See Art of JPA Gittens at www.geocities. com/juliusgittens