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Public Editor: Why The Globe published photos of a drowned Syrian boy

Globe and Mail public editor Sylvia Ste

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

"I am simply appalled at the front cover of The Globe and Mail," said Geneviève on Twitter. "Who publishes pictures of dead bodies nowadays? A child, at that?"

"This is how your newspaper will sit at our store today," said Town on Twitter, showing the newspaper on the stands with the photo turned inward.

"Heartbreak cannot describe my feelings when I saw this picture on the front page of your paper," a Thornhill reader said. "How could we, as human beings, watch the world waste the lives of our future generation and think about balanced budgets and Mr. Duffy's entitlement trial. … Shame on us for being so cold and inconsiderate to what is happening to the others."

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"It went straight in the garbage," one caller said. "It's great that it captures people's attention, but it's too harsh, too big and too disrespectful to the child. I don't think it's gratuitous, but I think it's too much."

And James on Twitter showing the photo and quoting The Globe editorial: "the world as it is, its cruelties exposed … (Globe and Mail)."

I am not surprised to see such a range of opinions and views on today's front page showing a small boy lying face down, his arms tucked in and palms facing up as if sleeping. Three-year-old Alan Kurdi is dead, drowned along with his five-year-old brother and his mother trying to reach the Greek Island of Kos. He was one of thousands of Syrian refugees who have lost their lives trying to escape. The news this morning that his family wanted to come to Canada makes it more important and heartbreaking.

But as difficult as it is to look at, it is worth remembering that a newspaper has a responsibility at times to show the horrors of war and death – but never to do it lightly. There have been times throughout history when the publication of a photo has changed the public understanding and/or opinion of a world event. They are iconic photos that, yes, can shock and appall readers. And to what end?

It happened in the Vietnam War, when the public's attitude was changed with the photo of a young girl running in shock and agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village.

It also happened during 9/11 when readers were shocked to see the falling man and other photos.

"Showing dead bodies, bloodied victims and traumatized survivors of bombings, massacres and other tragedies is justified," says The Globe and Mail's editorial code, "provided the image is historically relevant and/or advances the story in a serious and considered manner; conveys information relevant to the story; and is not intended primarily to shock readers or viewers."

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In my view, this photo, as difficult as it is to look at, meets that standard. It advances the story and brings a very grim and difficult world event squarely into the public eye in an unflinching way.

Globe editors met last night to discuss the use and placement of this photo and, as the editorial explains, this was a very deliberate decision.

Canadians and Globe readers have been concerned about the migrant and refugee crisis for some time, and I believe that publishing this photo on the front page will be a catalyst for good. It may shock readers, but I expect it will move many to take action. This is what a newspaper should do: provoke conversation and change.

I would be interested to hear from you if you believe that good will come from the publication of this photo and if the judgment by Globe editors was right or wrong. Could you look at it or was it just too upsetting to see on the front page? Does the image on the front page of a newspaper have more impact than on social media?

Editor's note: The Globe has interviewed Tima Kurdi, the aunt of the two drowned Syrian boys who were originally identified as Aylan Kurdi and Galip Kurdi. Ms. Kurdi says the Turkish government erroneously changed the spelling of the boys' names. In fact, their names are actually Alan Kurdi, three years old, and his older brother, Ghalib Kurdi, five years old. This story has been corrected.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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