Media walks fine line when portraying the suffering of children
Last August, Omran Daqneesh, a 5-year-old Syrian boy living in Aleppo, was wounded in a bombing. Omran was photographed sitting in the back of an ambulance, covered in dust and blood. This gut-wrenching photo was soon on the front page of nearly every Western newspaper and news channel.
The New York Times description of the photo is illuminating, “Omran, as he is carried from a damaged building in the dark, could be Everychild.“
This is what we do with the children in peril we see in photographs, we project ourselves, or our children into the same scenario, and this heightens our emotional connection and reaction.
Similarly, in September of 2015 Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy, was photographed dead on a Turkish beach after drowning trying to escape the Syrian civil war. Viewers were left horrified at the sight of Alan's limp and lifeless body lying still in the sand, and they emotionally projected their own children onto the scenario.
The most recent example of the “children in peril” narrative was on April 4th, when video of an alleged chemical attack in Idlib province in Syria came to light. The horrifying video showed young children gasping for air and others lying motionless, presumably dead. The video was impossible to escape in Western media, just as it was impossible not to have an emotional connection to those children and a reaction to their torment.
The Times was right, Omran could be Everychild, so could Alan Kurdi and the children in the Idlib video, because that is how they are presented to us in the media, they are our children, and we react accordingly, directing our righteous anger at those we are told are responsible for their suffering. Of course, since we are reacting emotionally and not responding thoughtfully, we are more easily manipulated into directing our aggression at persons who may not be fully to blame.
In the Omran photo, our rage could have easily been directed at rebel fighters and ISIS who created that situation in Aleppo. The same for Alan Kurdi, who was trying to escape civil war, which is the fault of many, including Assad, Turkey, Europe and the US. The photos of Omran and Alan were props used by the establishment press to sell a very specific narrative, one that we, in our vulnerable emotional state, would not even think to question.
The greatest example of this was the video of the attack in Idlib. Trump himself was manipulated into acting emotionally, rather than rationally when he told reporters, “I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me – big impact. I’ve been watching it and seeing it, it doesn’t get any worse than that … even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.”
Since beautiful children had been killed, Trump impulsively reacted by launching “beautiful weapons”, as NBC’s Brian Williams described them, to attack an airbase killing 15 people, who, one can safely assume, were once beautiful children themselves.
Blaming a villain helps us to transform the uncomfortable emotions evoked by these images into action. Action gives us catharsis and we are purged of the negative feelings that these images bring about. Trump did not like the way the video of the Idlib attack made him feel, so instead of deliberating and gathering all of the facts and evidence, he impetuously attacked Syria to quell his discomfort.
This is what happens when we react emotionally to things instead of thoughtfully respond, we are susceptible to being suckered by those who may try to manipulate us. If Trump had thought rationally about the Idlib video, he would have realized that the rebels had already used a false flag chemical weapons attack in 2013, in order to try and draw the US deeper into the conflict against Assad. The West blamed Assad back then too, but after emotions waned and reason waxed, the truth finally came out. Even though we are only a month past the Idlib attack, the same is happening regarding the facts of that case.
The dead giveaway that reveals the media’s deceitfulness regarding the use of children’s suffering as a political prop, is not just in the images they do show, but the ones they don’t.
The establishment media relentlessly pushed the picture of Omran on the public in order to demonize Assad and Russia, but deliberately ignored Hawraa, the 5-year-old Iraqi girl who was the only member of her family to survive a US-led airstrike on her home in Mosul. The video of Hawraa is just as emotionally wrenching as Omran’s picture, but it tells a story that contradicts the MSM’s narrative and undermines America’s sense of moral superiority.
And what about 8-year-old Nora Al-Alwaki, the American girl shot in the neck and killed by Navy SEALs when they raided her Yemeni village on January 29, 2017? Nora was a “beautiful” little girl, and an American one. Why wasn’t her picture continuously streamed to the American public by the MSM? Instead of Nora, we were fed the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens who was killed in the same raid. Trump’s bold-faced exploitation of Mrs. Owens was hailed as Trump’s first act of “being presidential”. I suppose he was acting like a president when he callously ignored Nora and the other Yemeni children killed.
Whenever a child in peril is used to sell a political agenda, particularly a violent one, this must give us tremendous pause. In many cases, however, there exists an altruistic reason for showing the suffering of children, and that is a way of preventing such things from happening again.
Iconic images, like that of “Napalm Girl” from the Vietnam war, for example, can at times wake America up to reality by breaking through the endless propaganda from the usual suspects, at other times though, similar images or stories can be manipulated by governments and the media for less noble causes.
At the same time, Hollywood utilizes our weakness for children in peril well. A perfect example is Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. In the black and white film, there is a harrowing sequence where Nazis forcibly remove Jews out of the Krakow ghetto. The scenario is horrifying enough, but Spielberg uses a little girl wandering through the mayhem to elicit more tension in the viewer. The girl stands out from the surrounding chaos because she wears a red coat, which is distinct since it’s the only splash of color in the entire film.
The girl in the red symbolizes the hopes, dreams and innocence snuffed out by the Nazis. The same is true when we see suffering children in the media, those images evoke in us deep feelings of empathy, sadness and anger because those children symbolize our own hopes, dreams and innocence. Seeing graphic pictures of brutalized children leaves us thinking emotionally, not rationally, which is a good place to be when watching a film, but a bad place to be when operating in the real world.
Last week, Jimmy Kimmel, host of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, delivered a heartfelt monologue tearfully recounting his newborn son’s struggle with a serious heart defect. The story was made all the more powerful because the usually sarcastic comedian struggled to maintain his composure throughout.
Kimmel, normally an apolitical comedian, ended his monologue by pleading to Americans from both sides of the political aisle to make sure children receive medical care regardless of their ability to pay for it. Kimmel poignantly ended his speech by saying, “No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life.”
The monologue soon went viral. When I saw it, it moved me very deeply. The accompanying pictures of his child with tubes and tape all over him affected me greatly. Had the talk show host played upon my emotions to manipulate me? I don’t think so. I believe Kimmel was sincere in his plea and wasn’t exploiting his son because he had nothing to gain by doing so. Not money, of which he has enough, or power, of which he has no need.
I’m sure I’m not alone in my reaction to Kimmel, being emotionally triggered by images of children suffering is human nature. The story changed the healthcare debate, and some Republicans are now demanding any new health care bill must pass the “Kimmel Test”.
Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t benefit by persuading people with his son’s story, however, the same is not true of the US government.
The next time a horrific photo of a child becomes a big story, stop, think rationally, not emotionally, and ask the question: who benefits? Maybe then we can halt the endless cycle of carnage that these images capture.
Michael McCaffrey, for RT
Michael McCaffrey is a freelance writer, film critic and cultural commentator. He currently resides in Los Angeles where he runs his acting coaching and media consulting business. mpmacting.com/blog/
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.