Migrant crisis: Should pictures of a drowned Syrian boy be shared on social media?

On social media this week, wedged between selfies and posts about breakfast, are extremely graphic images of dead Syrian refugee children, their bodies washed ashore. One image in particular, of a tiny boy, has sparked an ethical debate: Does this go too far, or is it something people need to see?

WARNING: This story contains 2 graphic photographs of a child who died

A Syrian woman and her children pause as they walk to the shore in the Turkish coastal town of Behramkale to board a dinghy bound for the Greek island of Lesbos. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

EDITOR'S NOTE (GRAPHIC WARNING): This story contains two graphic photographs of a young boy who died, images some viewers may find disturbing. They are embedded at the bottom of this story, after the last paragraph of text. CBC News has decided to include the photos to allow for the fullest understanding of the event, but we do want to give readers the option to not scroll down and click away if they don't want to see them.

On social media this week, wedged between selfies and posts about breakfast, are graphic images of dead Syrian children, their bodies washed ashore.

One image in particular — of a tiny boy, maybe one or two years old, face down in the sand — was trending online globally Wednesday after it was shared by influential activists like Peter Bouckaert, the emergency director for Human Rights Watch.

The toddler, whose body was found Wednesday, is one of a dozen Syrian civil war refugees who drowned off the coastal town of Bodrum in Turkey after a failed attempt to cross the Mediterranean on two boats bound for the Greek island of Kos. More than 320,000 people have attempted the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, and hundreds have died trying, according to Reuters.

"This obviously is a very difficult picture to be confronted with, and I don't tweet such graphic pictures all the time. I do understand the impact they have on people," Bouckaert told CBC News from Budapest, where he is interviewing Syrian refugees. 

"But in this case, it was really important for people to become confronted with the horror of what's happening to Syrians right now."

'It just hits you'

The photos of the boy have sparked a debate about the role of social media in documenting the refugee crisis and the ethical implications of sharing such graphic imagery.

"In the world of mainstream media, you would basically warn your readers your viewers. You would say, 'This piece contains graphic images,'" says Alfred Hermida, a University of B.C. journalism professor and author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters

"If you're browsing in your Facebook feed or your Twitter feed, you don't get that alert — it just pops up. You haven't made a choice to see the picture; it just hits you."

Vincent Mosco, a sociology professor from Queen's University in Kingston and a former Canada Research Chair in Communication and Society, says there is a long tradition of using provocative photographs to draw attention to international tragedies. 

"I can recall back in the '60s and '70s when we would see photos like this posted in newspapers regarding the Vietnam War," he says.

"We simply now have media that can reach more people and it's becoming more difficult for people to avoid seeing them."

In this case, says Mosco, that's a good thing. 

"Retweeting and sharing these pictures, I would argue is, in fact, ethical," he says. "While I appreciate people's sensitivities, photos like this represent situations that the world needs to know about and the world needs to act on."

A Syrian refugee carries a child as she walks along a railway track after crossing into Hungary from the border with Serbia. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

'Everyone is the media'

Many newspapers, including the Guardian and the Independent in the U.K., ran the images uncensored.

"The Independent has taken the decision to publish these images because, among the often glib words about the 'ongoing migrant crisis,' it is all too easy to forget the reality of the desperate situation facing many refugees," an editor's note read.

A competing newspaper, the Mirror, posted versions of the pictures with the child blurred.

The Mirror newspaper published the images of a dead Syrian boy with a blurring effect.

In Canada, the Globe and Mail posted one of the images uncensored and without warning at the top of a story about the how the photo spread on social media. The National Post ran it inside a story about the migrant crisis, with a graphic image warning at the top.

In the U.S., the New York Times ran the story about the deaths without any images.

CBC News has opted to use the picture "sparingly" and "in a respectful and minimal manner" within appropriate stories with warnings at the top, according to a memo from David Studer, director of journalistic standards and practices. 

Hermida says journalists, as gatekeepers, have always had to ask themselves whether publishing graphic images is in the public interest. Now, he says, everyone shares that responsibility. 

"Everyone is the media now," he says. 

Context matters

Similar debates about the ethics of social media sharing have sprung up around videos of police killings, ISIS propaganda, and most recently, the on-air shootings of a reporter and cameraman in Virginia that was also filmed by the killer and posted online.

In the latter example, the New York Post used still images from the video on its cover — a move applauded by some for showing what really happened and condemned by others for giving the killer the publicity he seemingly wanted. 

Each of these situations needs to be evaluated separately and in context, says Mosco.

"Anyone who writes a story or posts an image or a video has an ethical responsibility. I would say that it is unethical to be posting photos or videos distributed by ISIS that depict the beheading of one of their prisoners," he says.

"In the case of the photos around Syria and refugees, we have a different situation and one might make the case that any ethically responsible person would, in fact, post them because what we can observe in Syria is most likely the world's greatest human rights tragedy, at least of this year, and many people don't know about it and need to know about it."

Hungarian police officers detain a Syrian refugee family after members entered Hungary at the border with Serbia near Roszke. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

'An image that we all need to see' 

Hermida notes that people who might otherwise ignore news coverage about the refugee crisis will be moved by the pictures on social media.

"It brings it home to people that this is not just these faceless refugees from faraway places and numbers we can't make sense of. It makes it very, very personal," he says. "This is the thing about social media — it's very personal."

Bouckaert says it helps put a human face on the migrant crisis to counter anti-refugee sentiments being spread by some pundits and political leaders. 

British Prime Minister David Cameron has described people fleeing to Europe from places like Syria and Afghanistan as a "swarm." U.K. Sun columnist Katie Hopkins called them "cockroaches" and said gunships should be deployed against them.

In Bouckaert's tweet, he invites people to imagine the child in the photo as their own:

"This is a horrific image, but it is an image that we all need to see because we need to understand that our collective failure to stop the slaughter in Syria for the last four years and not welcome the people who flee its horrors are causing people to die and suffer tremendously."

Turkish officials in the coastal town of Bodrum stand near the body of a refugee child who drowned during a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos. (Dogan News Agency/EPA)