By ROBERT MACKEY
At least 12 migrants fleeing the war in Syria, including two young boys, drowned on Wednesday while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, according to Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency.
A sense of weary resignation at the plight of the Syrians — and hundreds of thousands of other refugees and migrants taking desperate risks to reach the safety of Europe — was briefly punctured by horrifying images of one of the young victims, a small boy whose body was discovered, face down in the sand, by a Turkish police officer.
The boy, in a red shirt and blue shorts, was identified by Turkey’s private Dogan news agency as Aylan, 3. The body of his 5-year-old brother, Galip, washed up on another part of the beach.
Photographs and video of Aylan’s lifeless body quickly spread across social networks in Turkey and then the rest of the world, posted by outraged observers, rights activists and reporters who suggested that the distressing images needed to be seen and could act as a catalyst for the international community to finally halt the war in Syria.
Among those who shared the images and expressed their dismay were Liz Sly, a Washington Post correspondent covering the war in Syria; Nadim Houry and Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch; David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee; and activists in the Syrian city of Raqqa and living under the rule of Islamic State militants.
On Twitter, the Turkish hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik, or Humanity Washed Up Ashore, accompanied many of the messages.
As the photographs appeared again and again in timelines on Facebook and Twitter, spurred in part by their publication on the websites of major European newspapers, a debate broke out about the ethics of sharing such graphic images of a dead child.
There were also disagreements inside newsrooms about whether to publish or even share the images. A number of reporters argued forcefully that it was necessary to confront the public with the human toll of the war in Syria, and the impact of policies that make it difficult for refugees to find asylum in Europe. But many editors were concerned about shocking their readers and wanted to avoid the appearance of trafficking in sensational images for profit.
To people saying I violated the dignity of the dead Syrian boy on the beach, 2 suggestions: 1) read about Syria 2) look up “dignity”.
— Liz Sly (@LizSly) September 2, 2015
By the end of the day, there was unusual agreement among the editors of newspapers across the political spectrum in Britain who decided to feature the images on their front pages, along with calls for action from Prime Minister David Cameron.
The images of the dead child were quickly absorbed into the vernacular of social media, used to create Photoshopped memes and tribute videos that were difficult to watch.
Many news organizations in the United States decided to publish pictures of the dead child in their print or online editions, but they were divided over whether to show more graphic images of the boy lying in the sand with his face partially visible.
The New York Times published a less jarring image that shows a Turkish police officer carrying the child away but conceals his face. Several other newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal and The Baltimore Sun, followed the same course of action.
“We debated it, but ultimately we chose to run a powerful version of this photo because it brings home the enormity of this tragedy,” said Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times.
The more jarring image appeared, though, in two major American metro dailies, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. The Globe and Mail, the national newspaper of Canada, also published the more graphic picture.
Kim Murphy, the assistant managing editor of The Los Angeles Times for foreign and national news, said there had been a consensus among the paper’s senior editors to show the more graphic picture.
“The image is not offensive, it is not gory, it is not tasteless — it is merely heartbreaking, and stark testimony of an unfolding human tragedy that is playing out in Syria, Turkey and Europe, often unwitnessed,” she said. “We have written stories about hundreds of migrants dead in capsized boats, sweltering trucks, lonely rail lines, but it took a tiny boy on a beach to really bring it home to those readers who may not yet have grasped the magnitude of the migrant crisis.”
Online news outlets weighed the same considerations as traditional newspapers. The image appeared on BuzzFeed News but was absent from Vox Media, which declined to publish it in part because of “a certain viral aspect the photo has taken on,” said Max Fisher, its editorial director. He worried that for some the image had become “less about compassion than about voyeurism.”
“I understand the argument for running the photo as a way to raise awareness and call attention to the severity of the refugee crisis, and I don’t begrudge outlets that did,” he said in an email message, “but I ultimately I decided against running it because the child in that photo can’t consent to becoming a symbol.”
A survivor of the capsizing, Omer Mohsin, told Turkey’s Dogan news agency that he was one of 17 Syrian refugees packed onto a small boat with a capacity of 10 that went down early Wednesday just after setting off from Bodrum. A second boat, with six passengers from the Syrian city of Kobani, also capsized en route to Kos, Dogan reported.
Mr. Mohsin said that smugglers had charged him and his brother 2,050 euros each. His brother was among those still missing on Wednesday afternoon when the beach was filled with tourists unaware of the tragedy.
An estimated 2,500 refugees or migrants have died or disappeared this year trying to reach Europe, a spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said last week.
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