When is a picture too much?

By Andrew M. Seaman

One of the last moments of Ki Suk Han’s life was broadcast to the world on the cover of Tuesday’s New York Post.

The 58-year-old Queens man was pushed in front of an oncoming Q train in New York City’s subway system on Monday. On the cover, Han is shown clinging to the subway platform seconds before being pinned between it and the cars, according to the Post’s description of events. He later died of his injuries.

The front page caught the attention of several journalists, whose Twitter reactions and judgments were nicely curated by Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman.

“Grim,” “sickening” and “over the line” were all used to describe the Post’s front page.

SPJ’s own Kevin Smith, chair of the Ethics Committee, wrote in a tweet that the Post’s decision showed an “astounding lack of ethics.”

Indeed, the SPJ Code of Ethics is clear that journalists should minimize harm by showing good taste and not pandering to lurid curiosity.

Unlike gut-wrenching pictures that show the human toll of wars or the devastating impact of natural disasters, the photo of Han on the Post’s cover does not add to the public discourse. The picture tells us nothing more than Han was most likely terrified in the last moments of his conscious life.

This is not the fault of the photographer – R. Umar Abbasi – who is now facing public backlash and questions about whether he could have done more to save Han. Like many of the photographers asked by Gawker, I don’t have enough information to weigh in on that argument.

Blame, however, does fall on the editors of the Post, who had time to make the decision to publish the image on the cover – with an oversized “DOOMED” splashed across the bottom.

A quick look at the paper’s website shows that there are other photographs the Post could have used, including exteriors of the subway station and a waiting ambulance. Though they may not be as jarring as the image of Han about to be hit by a train, those pictures are more respectful toward him and his family – another lesson from the Code of Ethics.

In this case, the damage has been done. Others reproduced, linked, tweeted, blogged and disseminated the cover throughout the world.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the Post and other news organizations will learn from the ample public backlash brought on by this cover.

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