Accuracy in Media

Golden Gate Bridge officials are seething over a moviemaker who reports he filmed suicide jumps from the bridge over the past year. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the filmmaker, Eric Steel, had earlier sought permission from officials to mount his cameras on the bridge in order to film a documentary on the bridge. In truth, Steel was capturing the jumps for a film about why people commit suicide. 

Marin County Supervisor Hal Brown said “It’s just a horrible thing to be taking pictures of.” San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano told the Chronicle, “It’s creepy. Whatever the intention of the film, you can’t help but think of a snuff film.” After becoming the target of contempt, the filmmaker defended himself partly by saying, “[O]n several occasions during the year, my crew and I were the first callers to the bridge patrol officers when we saw these events begin to unfold.”

Steel says his production will be “a movie about the human spirit in crisis. It is a movie about people.” But why were patrol officers only summoned “several” times? It appears that several of these people are dead because the police were not called in time and lives were not saved.

Why is the filming of a suicide-and a death-important to a film that supposedly will explore and explain why people are psychologically driven to take their lives? Why is viewing the destruction of a life so important to a film that we are led to believe will help people resist a suicidal impulse?

It looks like the filmmaker is simply trying to rationalize a ghoulish film that was completed through elaborate deception of local authorities.

Moving from documentary filmmaking to journalism, when does the photographer, videographer or ordinary journalist cross the line from ethical reporting to callous disregard for human life?

Peter Arnett, once considered a mainstream and respected journalist, has described how journalism takes precedence over saving lives. During an incident in Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1963, he said he watched a Buddhist monk squat on the pavement, squirt gasoline over himself from a rubber bottle, and set himself on fire. “I felt horror and disgust as his body blackened and puffed out like burned pastry,” Arnett said. “I could have prevented that immolation by rushing at him and kicking the gasoline away. As a human being, I wanted to. As a reporter, I couldn’t.”

Arnett’s excuse was if he had stopped the immolation, the secret police would have arrested the monk and “carried him off to God knows where,” and Arnett would have thus propelled himself into Vietnamese politics. “My role as a reporter would have been destroyed along with my credibility. What did I do? I photographed him burning on the sidewalk. I beat off a half a dozen secret police trying to steal my camera. I raced to the AP office, wrote the story and sent a radiophoto. It was on America’s front pages the next day.”

In May, 2004, photojournalists captured the attack and burning of U.S. contractors in their vehicle in Fallujah, Iraq. The Associated Press camera lenses lingered while the corpses were mutilated and picked at with shovels, beaten with shoes and dragged through the streets. It was clear the crowds were encouraged by the presence of big media since they were posing for the cameras. Finally, some corpses were hung from the bridge. Major U.S. newspapers ran photos, some with bodies visible, some with only flames visible.

Harvard published a report on the quandary of editors, saying, “The transparency of angst and indecision about the Fallujah images have been good for journalism.” Yet it is significant that some liberals in the press who wanted to focus on the Fallujah images, in order to generate opposition to the Iraq war, were quick to pan Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” film, for being too graphic and violent. Gibson was accused of a “pornographic” and “sadistic” focus on actor Jim Caviezel’s fake torture in the movie, as he played the role of Jesus Christ. It was as if liberal reviewers feared that the public would be so impressed by this account of the passion that they would run out and become conservative Christians like Gibson. However, prolonged journalistic emphasis on the real torture and brutality in Fallujah never warranted the adjectives of “pornographic” or “sadistic.” This was rationalized as the reality of war that the American people had to be exposed to.

Famed photojournalist Reza Deghati knows a lot about taking good pictures but says that concern for humanity must come first. He told the audience at a 2004 conference that, “I leave aside the camera when the person I was going to photograph needs my help.” Deghati, in Kabul after the Russian government fell, was present when a landmine exploded under a van filled with refugees. He said, “From out of the smoke, flames and confusion, a girl covered in blood got up and ran towards me; I prepared myself to take a photo that would have won many prizes…but stopped because that girl needed to be hugged, not photographed.”

While he has no photos of people getting burned to death or jumping off bridges to his credit, Deghati’s ethics have not hindered his advancement in the world of photojournalism. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Time Magazine, Vanity Fair, the New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic, among others.

While life’s most horrific tragedies often need to be told, sometimes a few words-and acts of humanitarian concern-are better than 1,000 pictures.

Ready to fight back against media bias?
Join us by donating to AIM today.


Comments are turned off for this article.