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The Daily Mirror has drawn flak as of late because they ran a misleading photograph on their cover addressing poverty in Britain. The problem was that the photograph is a stock photograph of an American child and her reason for crying was essentially, not because she was hungry or impoverished. Much criticism of the Mirror’s decision has been negative and probably exasperated by their track record of less-than-credible decision making in the past when it comes to cover photographs. (I should note upfront that I understand that the Daily Mirror is in fact considered a tabloid paper. However, they do cover news issues for which they have in the past won awards and is perhaps less gossipy than its American tabloid counterparts.)

In a rebuttal article for The Independent, Ian Burrell writes that the “paper’s logic in using a stock picture was sound enough” largely because the criticism had the Mirror used an actual British child and in doing so, potentially exploiting the hungry or impoverished child would have been more detrimental. The argument of whether photographs used in journalism exploits the less fortunate is one that probably won’t be resolved. It is too polarizing and to quantify whether such photographs evoke change or simply numb us to the pain of others is likely all but impossible.

What is perhaps quantifiable though is if the decision by the Mirror damages their credibility as a news outlet. Given that the paper fired Piers Morgan over a similar decision years ago would lead one to believe that even the Mirror understands that if they are perceived as dishonest by the public then that in turn is damaging. But the subtitle of Burrell’s article is, “The paper used the tears of an American girl to sell its story on child hunger – so what?” and I think his argument in justifying the Mirror’s actions are worth debate. With some regard I agree. If the photograph does the job of evoking a response do not the ends justify the means? If the photograph causes a reader to actually pay attention to the issue then good. I tend to lean towards the “for the betterment of the whole” side of the argument. I do take issue with two other arguments presented by Burrell. First, is that the ease with which dishonesty (with malicious intent or not) can be sniffed should be pause for concern for any news agency today. And so the response to the question, what’s the harm if in fact the ends do justify the means is that news agencies have to be more transparent in their reportage especially so because with the internet we are all fact-checkers. Ultimately Burrell offers up a bit of a double standard by calling out critics of the decision by suggesting they are being too harsh on the Mirror because the Mirror was being considerate not to exploit a British child while at the same time arguing that the if the public was slightly deceived (and thus their trust of the paper exploited) then that is okay as long as in the end the issue got the attention it deserves.

The biggest issue I have with Burrell’s argument however is his understanding of the photograph as an “emotive generic picture of a crying child.” I do not believe that the two qualifiers “emotive” and “generic” can even go together because to be emotive is to be specific. To even begin to understand someone else’s pain we have to understand our own. This is why I believe so many humanitarian agencies are headed by or founded by people who have experienced the same struggle as those for whom they fight. Secondly, more than anything I believe we are drawn to news stories out of curiosity. This I believe applies to people on both sides of the argument of whether photography used in journalism is exploitive. For those of us who are insensitive to the plight of others, these photographs are like rubbernecking at the scene of a car wreck or watching fail videos online. For those of us compassionate to the poor and misfortunate, it is informative and keeps one aware of those worse off than ourselves. Either way we want to know why in order that we can relate or not relate. And in the case of the Daily Mirror, someone wanted to know why the child was crying. And in doing so they found out.