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Should images of coronavirus victims be sanitised?

18 10 21

The New York Times chose a startling way to mark the catastrophe COVID-19 has wreaked in the US. With the country approaching the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths, on May 24, the newspaper chose to banish articles, photographs and graphics from its front page and instead there was "just a list: a long, solemn list" of nearly 1,000 obituaries of people killed by the pandemic.

The page clearly stood out, striking and memorable in its spartan sombreness, a throwback to the days before images came to dominate how news stories were told. In another sense, it perhaps signposts a relative change in US media coverage of the crisis.

Observers have noted that during this pandemic Western media has increasingly opted to publish images of ill and dead people. Though doubtlessly distressing, the unfamiliar images pale in comparison with how tragedies such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa were portrayed on the same pages, both in volume and in gut-wrenching detail.

Where Ebola victims were routinely pictured in starkly undignified states, uncovered, dead or dying alone on bare floors inside isolation wards, the published pictures of COVID-19 patients are for the most part more restrained, perhaps more respectful, almost always showing them covered.

And it is not that similarly graphic images of COVID-19 victims are not available. They are, but they are not being published.

Still, much like the Times front page, the new visibility of death is also emblematic of a past era. Between the Spanish Civil War, the first war to be extensively photographed for a mass audience, and the Vietnam War, perhaps the most photographed conflict, Western newspapers would routinely show bodies. However, even then, the foreign dead were treated differently.

For example, Folker Hanusch notes in his book Representing Death in the News, that in the latter conflict, when displayed, American........

© Al Jazeera