Niyi Aderibigbe

The New York Times and the image of horror that got Kenyans talking

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has confirmed that the security operation at Dusit complex, where DusitD2 hotel as well as offices are located, has been completed with several victims of a terror attack on the complex rescued. As the security operation went on yesterday and the world earnestly prayed for the safety of people trapped in the complex, 168-year-old newspaper The New York Times published a gory photograph of people killed in the attack much to the displeasure of Kenyans and several followers of the attack worldwide. The reaction of the newspaper, while distasteful to many, is a reminder of the long-held belief of Western exceptionalism and the eagerness with which bad stories about Africa are reported. It raises the question of the importance of violent news images and why African media need to control narratives around African stories.

The attack at the Westlands district of Nairobi has been contained and the terrorists, suspected to be members of al-Shabab, neutralized, but not before they killed 14 people and injured several others.

President Kenyatta commended all the security teams who swiftly neutralized the terrorists, but added that “We have learnt that we cannot take anything for granted. In the coming days and months we will be working on strengthening our systems.”

As discussions about the attack continue, The New York Times’ reporting and the reaction of its reporters and editors to criticisms will remain an important topic.

In his book How to write about Africa, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina dissected cliches and preconceptions about Africa that western writers like to use. He wrote about taboo subjects when writing about Africa, such as ordinary domestic scenes and love between Africans, unless a death is involved. There have also been several academic publications on stereotypes of Africa used by Western Media. While some argued that criticisms of such stereotypes are exaggerated, others maintain that Western Media do not acknowledge enough, the political and economic developments in the continent, with many of them always trying hard to portray the continent as the antithesis of the West and a representation of everything wrong, while responsibly reporting similar situations in the West.

“Please point us to any of the US mass shootings where you have published photos of the dead,” BBC Africa Business Editor Larry Madowo asked on twitter in response to a comment by The New York Times (NYT) defending its publishing of the photo showing victims of the brutal attack.

Jonathan Rosenthal, Africa editor at The Economist is also not impressed by NYT’s defense. “I am a bit troubled by the response of the NYTimes on its decision to publish a graphic picture showing the bodies of victims. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t see similar images after mass shootings in the US,” he wrote on Twitter.

There were several other comments under a story with the gruesome photo questioning The New York Times’ editorial discretion. But NYT insists that the photo remains.

Zach Montague, a senior NYT editor in an email to Kenya’s Citizen Digital stated that while the media organisation want to be respectful to the victims of the attack, it believes it is important to give readers a clear picture of the horror of such attack, including showing pictures that are not sensationalized but give a real sense of the situation.

According to Montague, NYT does the same everywhere it covers such horror stories. While this may be true, it is also true that the photograph as used in the story is unnecessary to depict the extent of the attack. Kenya has suffered several terror attacks over the last decade, with several deaths recorded. The spread of terrorism across the world has also made such attacks closer to most news readers. The news of terror attacks, is in itself psychologically harmful to many. It gets worse when they hear the number of people killed in the attack, who are first humans, compatriots and could have been friends, family or co-workers. A graphic image does more psychological harm.

But photographer Christoph Bangert disagrees. In his book War Porn,  he argues: “How can we refuse to acknowledge a mere representation—a picture—of a horrific event, while other people are forced to live through the horrific event itself?” He is not the only one. Julian Reichelt, editor in chief of once wrote: “Without pictures the world would be more ignorant, the needy even more invisible, more lost. … Photographs are the screams of the world.”

The debate on how newsrooms should handle graphic images of violence continues, and it appears to be one of such debates that never end. While we are at it, news publications in Africa will continue to work hard to tell African stories the way we want it to be told. But it requires a lot of professionalism by journalists and support from readers. And to globally respected media organisations working in regions like Africa, they need to do better.