By JK and Wangui K
This open letter to the NYT by Wangui Kaniaru re the terror attack in kenya today expresses a lot of things i feel about the US mainstream media (or western media in general) re how they report news coming out of africa. i wanted to suggest that Wangui pitch an op-ed to the nyt or some other paper, but it’s also exhausting trying to convince an editor that you matter.
To the New York Times:
I am writing with regard to the above article (link), in which the New York Times elected to publish photographs of bullet-ridden victims of the attack at the Dusit Hotel in Nairobi.
I have been a regular reader of the New York Times for a number of years, and have read numerous articles detailing terror attacks all over the world. I do not recall seeing such gratuitously graphic photos of victims of such attacks in the US, Europe, or even Asia. Photos of crying survivors, or of injured survivors, I have seen. Shattered glass, burning buildings, blood on the side walk, police first responders–all these have made their way into the story to support the narrative of a terror attack. Bullet ridden close ups of victims, not so much. Not ever.
If an actual audit was done of New York Times’ coverage of terror attacks and publication of victim photographs, would it really support the papers’ purported “objective” reporting standard of showing “bodies but not faces” whenever such bodies are available to fill the white space on the page? Such an audit cannot be done by an outsider who does not have the benefit of knowing what photos may have been omitted from the final selection of what was published in such instances. However I find it hard to believe that there were no photos of carnage that involved victims in such situations. The idea that seeing various corpses slumped over tables at a Nairobi restaurant somehow conveys “meaning” in a way that the text and other photos do not is disingenuous and appalling. I am not aware of the need to underscore meaning in such a fashion during numerous attacks in Paris where casualties of knife attacks or IEDs or runaway trucks arose in cafes and on sidewalks on the Champs Elysee. It seems more likely the New York Times’ policy, which is being quoted so assiduously in defending the editorial choices made when covering this tragic incident in Nairobi, somehow cut the other way in such instances and it was sufficient to use the other photos (referenced above) to give context to the tragedy. What an amazing and convenient thing objectivity is in such instances! But not in this one.
I am heartbroken that a newspaper which I have read and loved for several years has demonstrated such a brutal and insupportable approach to the humanity of the victims of this attack. I cannot see where the moral high ground lies in claiming an “objectivity” that is so dehumanizing at the expense of your readers and countless other real people who are being affected by this incident and your choices in covering it with such imagery accompanying it.
While this email is really a reflection of my own dismay (and will probably make no difference at all in your views or actions, now or in future with regard to such coverage), I cannot help feeling that I could not live with myself if I somehow managed to look away and come back to your site tomorrow to click through my favorite columns as though what the New York Times has done today has not made me feel diminished. I need to acknowledge how small, how disempowered, how irrelevant this situation has made me feel, and share that with you so you know it too. In my country, for my people, the story that will be told will be one where true feeling can only be mustered by terrorizing us again with images of unspeakable death while justifying it as somehow objective and therefore worth doing.