Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Snap decision

In the smartphone era, everybody's a freelance journalist. So, in a life and death situation, what do you do? Try to help -- or take pictures?

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CHICAGO -- A man moments from certain death struggles to escape from the tracks as an approaching train bears down. Commuters standing nearby along the platform are instantly faced with the gravest of questions: Do you risk your own life to save the man? Are you too stunned to react at all? Do you take pictures?

Tuesday's New York Post cover photo, a product of just that scenario Monday in Manhattan, revives a classic journalistic dilemma that now has a 21st-century twist: While witnessing imminent tragedy, people can opt to chronicle the event, to intervene, or to somehow try to do both. And in an era when almost everyone has a cellphone that takes pictures, just about everyone can be a freelance journalist.

Ki Suk Han, a 58-year-old married father from Queens, was pushed onto the tracks in the Times Square subway station Monday by an attacker who had been hassling other commuters along the platform.

Naeem Davis, 30, a homeless man, was arraigned Wednesday night on a second-degree murder charge and ordered held without bail in the death of Han.

R. Umar Abbasi, a Post freelance photographer waiting on the platform, told the paper he saw the man on the tracks and began running toward the train, firing his camera's flash in an effort to warn its operator.

"I just started running, running, hoping that the driver could see my flash," the Post quoted Abbasi as saying, in a story that ran with one of the chilling images he captured -- showing Han turned face-to-face with the train that would kill him. An Internet search shows Abbasi has provided photos to the Post on at least one other recent occasion.

Han was dragged three to 4.5 metres, another witness told the Post, and was trapped between the train and the platform. "Crushed him like a rag doll," Abbasi said. The man was pronounced dead at a hospital.

But on Abbasi's camera were documentary images of what had happened, and Post editors faced a series of decisions: Would the paper buy the pictures? Would it run them? If so, where, and how big?

The end result: A full-cover shot on the front of the New York tabloid known for its bombastic covers. Tuesday's headline: Doomed, with type above it reading, Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die. Images of the cover and stories about it quickly went viral Tuesday morning, spawning debate and criticism.

Roy Peter Clark is a vice-president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism school and media studies think-tank. He likened Monday's incident in New York to the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in the 1960s, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs that resulted.

"One of the classic ethical cases in journalism is inspired by that in a way," Clark said. "What is the responsibility of the photographer, who's sent there not to witness a suicide, but to capture an important story within a war zone and suddenly finds himself in a predicament where there's a different kind of role -- a sudden and emergency role conversion, or inversion?"

Some online commenters likened the Post cover to another iconic image, Kevin Carter's Pulitzer-winning photo from 1993 of a young Sudanese famine victim, crumpled nearly face down on the ground as she struggled to reach a feeding centre. Perched behind the still toddler was a waiting vulture. Though there are different accounts of events surrounding the photo, Carter was criticized for snapping it rather than helping the girl. He committed suicide the following year.

People trapped in burning buildings, pinned in auto wreckage or threatening to kill themselves are just a few examples of similar events journalists -- professional or citizen -- could happen upon in the line of duty.

"It's not an uncommon thing that a news person has to decide whether he or she wants to become a rescuer, potentially, or a chronicler," Clark said of the modern-day Good Samaritan question. "Anyone who owns a smartphone in the year 2012 is a freelance photographer."

A Post video about Han's death said Abbasi was not physically strong enough to lift the man to safety and used the only tool he had that could help -- his camera flash.

"The most painful part was I could see him getting closer to the edge," Abbasi told the Post. "He was getting so close."

But regardless of the ethics of snapping the fateful frames rather than trying to pull the victim to safety, should Abbasi's photos have been seen by the public? Media outlets have varying standards of what they will show -- and what they won't.

"Time is the co-author of good judgment," said Clark, who was born and raised in New York City. "It's one thing to just take something on the spot because you're there, and quite another thing to decide this is interesting and important. 'This is newsworthy; people need to see this and here's our journalistic reason for making this public.'

"It sounds like the editors had plenty of time to exercise those judgments and they have to be held responsible for them -- for better or worse."

Richard Kraut, of Northwestern University's Brady Scholars Program in Ethics and Civil Life, said the human expectation is for bystanders and the photographer to have helped the man, if they could. While not condemning Abbasi for taking the shot, Kraut did question the Post's decision to run it.

"There is a danger that this publication decision could encourage potential rescuers to decide instead to snap photos," Kraut said via email, though he said he does not see a trend in that direction. "Sometimes a lot of good can be done when a public event is captured by a photograph. But I don't think any public interest was served in this case."

 

-- Chicago Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 J5

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