A photograph that is right for the website can be wrong for social media

Elisabeth Ribbans
A photograph that is right for the website can be wrong for social media . Serious thought is given to publishing troubling images, of death or distress for example, but even then context is key

On the morning after the Streatham terror attack, the Guardian’s print edition carried a single-column photograph of the perpetrator, Sudesh Amman, at the bottom of the front page. The main image showed armed police at the incident. Later in the day, an online reader contacted me to express concern at the prominence given to the attacker; in fact, she thought that he should not be named at all. I drew her attention to a 2019 column by my predecessor, Paul Chadwick, in which he supported the Guardian’s policy of naming perpetrators but agreed with the position of the editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, that it was important to ensure “the terrorist’s identity is not overly represented in our coverage, and that our coverage also focuses on the victims”.

The reader acknowledged this but said: “I think it comes across as particularly high impact on the app, because of the formatting, and so you only see one or two stories.”

Related: How to report terrorism: name, but don’t amplify | Paul Chadwick

I did not see coverage that breached the editor-in-chief’s guidance but the reader’s observation about platform difference stuck with me.

A few days earlier, the Guardian had published on its website a photograph of a man lying dead on an empty street in Wuhan, guarded by medical workers in protective suits. The accompanying article, by Agence France Presse, was measured and respectful, making clear that the cause of the man’s death was unknown but that fear of coronavirus was pervading the city. A small number of readers wrote to urge immediate removal of the image. “It is not even clear if his family are aware … and the image is being shared internationally,” said one. All were upset for the man and his family; some were also upset for themselves.

The decision to publish photographs of people in death or distress is never taken lightly or alone. There must be a strong journalistic purpose, the dignity of the subject and position of family has to be considered carefully – such images are used extremely rarely.

On this occasion it was made by Guardian Australia, where the international news editor, Bonnie Malkin, explained to me how after full discussion weighing the sensitivity considerations and the public interest, they decided that this image “said so much about the situation in Wuhan in the early days of lockdown” that it qualified as an “exceptional circumstance” to publish.

Of the set of photos available, they chose one with the man in the background, “showing as much of the wider context as possible”. They did not believe he could be identified.

That last point – despite distance and the half-covering of a facemask – is not entirely knowable. But, on balance, I support the Guardian’s decision to show this image of desolation.

What did trouble me, however, was seeing it on the Guardian’s Facebook feed, unavoidably detached from the contextualising article and given prominence afforded by platform rather than editorial discretion. It presented as a grim postcard for debate. The 800 or so comments underneath were largely about, and sharply divided on, the ethics of publishing the photo. It was not clear that everyone had clicked through to the story. The standalone image-and-headline caused unintended conjecture, and I wondered how well this combined to serve readers and respect the man’s family.

Feedback has prompted reflection, and in retrospect Malkin says they would have used existing tools both to warn readers and prevent automatic publication to social media. But, as another editor advised me, vigilance over “lost context” applies to publishing around the Guardian’s own website too. It is a reminder that the question of not only “if” to publish but “how” has many and increasing layers.

• Elisabeth Ribbans is the Guardian’s readers’ editor (guardian.readers@theguardian.com)

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