Publication of pictures of the sick and dying is unethical journalism

Tala residents read a copy of new look of Saturday Nation on August 1, 2020. PHOTO | GASTONE VALUSI

Photo credit: NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Intrusion into grief or shock is done through the publication of words and pictures of people suffering personal tragedies such as illness.
  • Editors are prohibited from publishing any picture that is obscene, vulgar or offensive to public good taste unless in the public interest.
  • The NMG editorial policy has strict rules on the use of such sensitive pictures. 

Kinyua Thuku believes the Nation Media Group (NMG) does not accord patients in hospitals the respect and dignity they deserve. He also complains about double standards in the coverage of patients in hospitals.

“I believe that NMG, being a Kenya paper, should learn to adopt the same standards as its European counterparts with regards to the dignity they accord their dead and patients in hospitals,” wrote Mr Thuku.

“It’s dehumanising to always see poor villagers in district hospitals while we never see pictures of patients in Nairobi Hospital.”

In particular, he is concerned about “a disturbing picture” published in the Saturday Nation showing a wounded man, probably comatose, being operated on, on  a makeshift operating table, in a barely functional hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The accompanying story was on how the DRC was coping with disease outbreaks.

Different standards

“What is NMG’s code on the use of photos of people in hospitals, and more so those who are comatose?” he asks. “Do they give their consent for their images to be published? Why are there different standards on how Africans and Europeans are treated with regard to major health matters?

“I vividly recall during the Ebola epidemic the Western media constantly bombarded us with gory images of Ebola patients in hospital wards and bodies being carried off for disposal.  However, with the European Covid-19situation, which is more serious in terms of severity, the same media houses reporting on the pandemic never show us any gory pictures of Europeans. Most of the pictures shown are of empty streets and workplaces.”

Mr Thuku is not alone. On July 24, 2020, we published in these columns a complaint titled “Sickly photo” by Gideon Ayieko, who was upset by the publication of a picture Ohangla songbird Maureen Achieng’ aka Lady Maureen sitting on a hospital bed just before she died. He asked: “Why use a photo of hers when she is very sick?”

In sum, Mr Thuku and Mr Ayieko are complaining about what has come to be known as media “intrusion into grief or shock”.

Intrusion into grief or shock is done through the publication of words and pictures of people suffering personal tragedies such as illness.

Sensitive pictures

The “Code of Conduct for the Practice of Journalism in Kenya” states that publication of such information should be weighed against privacy rights of the people involved. Such intrusion is forbidden except in the public interest.

The NMG editorial policy has strict rules on the use of such sensitive pictures.  Editors are prohibited from publishing any picture that is obscene, vulgar or offensive to public good taste unless in the public interest. A photograph of questionable taste “should have significant news value to justify its usage.” What’s more, a photograph should be used “only with the express consent of the owner”.

The policy is also strong on privacy rights. It says one of the basic tests that should be applied is whether the picture is invasive of anyone’s privacy. If it is, is the use of such a photo justified by a clear and indisputable public interest? The public interest “must itself be legitimate and not merely based upon prurient or morbid curiosity”.

The world over, patient photos are protected the same way medical information and journalists are required to treat patients with respect and dignity.  Moreover, it’s universally accepted that the media obtains the patient’s before they can use his or her picture.

The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected] Call or text 0721989264.