The photograph shows the aftermath of a terrorist attack at a luxury hotel in Nairobi, Kenya. Laptops and plates are still on the table, and four people are hunched over, bloodied and lifeless.
Almost immediately after The New York Times published the graphic image on its website, there was outrage in Kenya. Many people in a country coming to terms with Tuesday’s horrific attack felt disrespected, and publication of the photo has sparked discussion about journalism ethics, media freedom and racism during coverage of tragedies.
“Absolutely distasteful, disgusting and deplorable. An utter disgrace,”a user named Fadhili Kanini said on Twitter.
The attack began Tuesday afternoon when five men used grenades to breach the DusitD2 hotel in the Kenyan capital. One of them blew himself up at the restaurant where the photo was taken, and the four others moved through the hotel firing weapons. The standoff lasted until Wednesday morning, when the military moved in and killed the rest of the gunmen. In the end, the Islamist group Al-Shabab took responsibility and 21 victims were killed.
But as Kenyans grieved, controversy over the photo taken by Khalil Senosi from The Associated Press continued to boil. A petition on Change.org calling on the Times to pull down the image had garnered nearly 18,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.
The New York Times for its part issued a statement saying that in these tough situations, its journalists “try to be very sensitive.”
“We want to be respectful to the victims and to others affected by the attack,” the statement read. “But we also believe it is important to give our readers a clear picture of the horror of an attack like this. This includes showing pictures that are not sensationalized but that give a real sense of the situation.”
These are standards, the Times said, that are applied across the world.
But the discussion in Kenya asked a pointed question: Would the Times have published such a graphic photograph if this had happened in the U.S. and the victims had been white?
Stephen Maingi, a software engineer and data analyst in Nairobi who created the Change.org petition, worked his way through the Times’ coverage of the mass shootings in Parkland, Fla.; Thousand Oaks, Calif.; the Brussels attack; and the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. He said he saw no published photos of dead bodies, though it’s not clear whether such photos were available for use.
One thing that is clear is that access to crime scenes in places such as Nairobi is less tightly controlled that in the United States.
Maingi also pointed out that the Times published the Kenya photo before families of the victims were notified.
“The New York Times did not honor the victims’ rights to privacy and human dignity and to be treated in a manner that is not cruel, inhumane or degrading,” Maingi said. Those are all things the Kenyan constitution guarantees all its citizens.
Ken Opalo, a professor of political science at Georgetown University, wrote a blog post arguing that the Times’ response showed a “significant amount of empathy gap.” While the pictures did not show faces, he said, the people in them could be identified by clothing.
“Second, and more importantly, Kenyans’ demands for respect for victims and their families are valid in their own right,” he wrote. “They do not need further validation by what the Times does elsewhere.”
Kainaz Amaria, a visuals editor at Vox.com who writes often about minority representation in visual journalism, tweeted that the Times seemed to be dealing with this criticism in a vacuum, as if it was an isolated incident.
“In fact it stands alongside decades of visual coverage exploiting the pain and suffering of black and brown folks,” she tweeted.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa, of which this reporter is a member, issued a statement backing The New York Times. The group pointed out that different media outlets have different guidelines and that Kenyans have every right to object to the Times use of that photograph. The FCA-EA, however, objected to the personal attacks against the Times correspondent who wrote the associated story.
By Thursday afternoon, the controversy moved from the Twitter-verse to the real world. The Media Council of Kenya, which issues accreditation to all journalists in the country, gave The New York Times a 24-hour ultimatum: Either remove the picture and issue an apology, or lose your accreditation.
“The MCK’s position is that your publication was in bad taste, disrespectful to the victims and families of the affected victims in addition to being unprofessional,” the council’s chief, David Omwoyo, wrote.
In a letter responding to the Media Council, the Times stood its ground. Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, explained that the Times has indeed made tough choices and published “similar painful photos” from around the world.
“Again, we are very sympathetic to the pain of those affected in Nairobi, and we understand that many reasonable people disagree with our decision to publish these photos,” Corbett wrote. “But I hope to assure you that we take this responsibility seriously, and are guided by our mission to help readers see and understand the world.”