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How to tell story of the dead without offending the living

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As media coverage of the Asian tsunami slowly recedes from the front pages and the network news, the stark images linger: soldiers throwing bodies into mass graves, babies lined up in a morgue, excavators clawing the dead from piles of debris, a mother sitting by her lifeless child, her head thrown back in agony.

Haunting in their intensity, the images and news footage of the largest natural disaster in decades have helped fuel a massive outpouring of aid and individual donations - and also a wave of criticism.

One Indian columnist calls the coverage a "corpse show." What happened to the restraint and sensitivity shown in the aftermath of 9/11? asks Ashok Malik in the national daily Indian Express. Other critics talk of "disaster porn" and point out that such images deprive the grieving of their privacy and the dead of their dignity.

Natural disasters, manmade calamities, and wars all produce imagery that can shock and sometimes offend. Yet how the media communicate the magnitude of an event depends heavily on who the audience is and how far they are from the unfolding drama. So can a tragedy on the scale of the tsunami - with 150,000 dead, and counting - be conveyed to an audience a world away without graphic images of death?

"As horrific as the photos are, the danger - particularly with the Western public - is of being able to turn away from poor, brown-skinned people and their suffering," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"So you have to err on the side of showing them more rather than less," showing them photos that are "outside normal parameters."

At the same time, she says, the media are obligated to minimize the harm. "Perhaps you don't show bodies that are identifiable, perhaps you don't show the most graphic images."

That ethical imperative was given broad interpretation in the tsunami's aftermath. Networks awash in footage that could have come from disaster movies were sometimes accused of double standards and broadcasting gratuitous gore, even as their ratings soared.


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