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How to tell story of the dead without offending the living

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"In death, there should be no hierarchy," Jeremy Seabrook of The Guardian wrote Dec. 31. "But even as Sri Lankans wandered in numb disbelief through the corpses, British TV viewers were being warned that scenes they were about to witness might distress them."

The New York Times got heat from readers for a huge front-page photo Dec. 28 of a grief-stricken mother crouched beside rows of tiny children, all dead. Daniel Okrent, in his public editor's column, said many readers called it "exploitative," "disrespectful," and "unduly graphic." The managing editor responded that it was "an indescribably painful photograph, but one that was in all ways commensurate to the event."

In the first 24 hours, before the extent of the tragedy was known, coverage was more subdued. The images became more vivid only as the immensity of the tragedy became apparent and news outlets felt an urgency to communicate the enormity of what had happened, analysts say.

Yet that line between exploitation and depiction of reality can be a hair's breadth of opinion.

What creates public outcry, is people's belief that the media are using images as a marketing ploy - to get attention, entice them to buy the paper, or stop them from changing channels, says Susan Moeller, professor of media and international affairs at the University of Maryland.

"Even when the public is distressed by difficult images," she says, "if that news outlet is transparent about its reasons for running those pictures ... there has generally been very little outcry and protest, and often support for that ethical decision."

And sometimes the most graphic images are not the ones of those who died, argues McBride, but of those who lived. "That's what people find the most intrusive," she says, recalling a widely used photograph of a middle-aged man in agony as his child lies before him (see page 11). "What's disturbing about that picture is not the dead body. What's disturbing is the horrific grief that he's going through. It's an intensely private moment."

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