Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is concerned about The Times’ decision to publish an image of a dead infant on its front page (21/07/2010).

MMA acknowledges that it was not a decision that The Times team made lightly, as evidenced by the editorial that appeared alongside the image. This unusual step made clear that The Times was aware of the exceptional nature of this shocking and violent image, and their need to explain and justify its publication. For this MMA applauds it.

Nevertheless there are issues surrounding the publication of this image that remain of concern to MMA. First among them is that the justification used by the paper to publish this image may not be legitimate. The Times’ front page editorial asks readers: “will you find the abandonment of an infant as outrageous and horrifying as we did?”

MMA believes the serious issue of child abandonment needs to be addressed by the public and by policy makers. While the publication of this image has succeeded in igniting a debate on this topic, it was done before the full circumstances of the case had been established.

The publication of the image has been described as irresponsible by Dr Harry Moultrie, Director of Enhancing Children’s HIV Outcomes (ECHO), who said The Times should have waited for an autopsy to establish whether the infant died as a result or a termination, was still born, died of exposure or was killed.

The Times clearly accepts that its decision to publish this shocking image could only be made in extraordinary circumstances. MMA supports this contention. However when the justification offered may be based on a mistaken assumption, this is a cause of grave concern.

If the purpose of publishing this image was to spark a debate about illegal abortions, would The Times have been justified in putting it on the front page? MMA says categorically no.

In deciding to publish the image on the front page, MMA maintains that The Times also failed in its obligation to “minimise harm”. By opting for the shock factor, The Times ignored the emotional distress that the image may cause to children or to adults who have experienced infant related trauma. MMA believes that, had the publication of this image been justified, it would have been as effective if it appeared on page 3.

While The Times editorial team considered whether or not to publish this image, MMA contends it still made the wrong decision. If there is a risk that the image represents something other than what the paper suggests, how can The Times justify using it? It cannot.

William Bird, Director of Media Monitoring Africa is available for further comment.
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