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Out-Scoop Your Conscience

Rachel Ginsberg

Pressured by editors who need to scoop the competition in a media society where fight for market share is a number-one priority, how far off their own moral course will reporters veer for a story?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Last week, Jews in New York and around the world were outraged by the New York Post’s coverage of the shocking murder of Williamsburg resident Menachem Stark z”l. But the Post has a reputation for constantly pushing the limits of decency, and the offensive banner headline, which practically justified his horrific demise, was in fact faithful to the newspaper’s pattern: the more shocking the headline, the more papers will sell. Take last year’s gruesome front-page photo of a man pushed onto the subway tracks about to be hit by a train, with the screaming headline: “DOOMED… This Man Is About to Die.” The masses condemned the gory spin, but few could resist the urge to read the story.

That horrifying December 2012 image showedQueensresident Ki-Suck Han desperately struggling to climb to safety after being shoved onto the subway tracks by a street hustler, as the headlights of the train bore down on him. Seconds later, he was run over and killed.

Even the Post, which created its niche in sensationalist, bad-taste journalism, was surprised by the onslaught of condemnation by media ethicists, other media outlets, and even Post fans. How, these critics asked, could the paper stoop so low and publish a picture, with no journalistic or political purpose, of a hapless man about to die? And worse, what kind of media culture encourages a photographer to snap a picture instead of trying to rescue the poor fellow?

The photographer, R. Umar Abbassi, soon found himself facing unnerving questions about his scoop, but defended his actions the following day in newspaper and television interviews. Abbassi said he had his camera in his hand because he’d just been on assignment nearby. When he saw what had happened — alerted by screaming onlookers who were trying to warn the train driver — he began running toward Han, but said he was too far away to reach the victim. As he ran, Abbassi said he snapped the shutter in the hope that the driver would see the flashes from his camera and brake in time to avoid hitting Han. The flash, he said, went off 49 times.

“I had no idea what I was shooting. I’m not even sure it was registering with me what was happening,” he told the New York Times the next day — although he did submit the photos and was paid well for them. Still, he said he wasn’t involved in the publishing decision. “Every time I close my eyes, I see the image of death. I don’t care about a photograph,” he said.


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