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Photos of drowned Syrian boy spark debate on social media ethics

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.

“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 12 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 “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)


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Convicted Rapper’s Freedom In Hands Of Crusading Louisiana Lawyer

When Buddy Spell was an 8-year-old boy, he became enamored with Atticus Finch, the morally upright protagonist of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, as a Louisiana defense attorney, Spell is on the verge of doing what Finch was unable to do — win an innocent man his freedom.

Spell’s symbolic mockingbird is McKinley “Mac” Phipps, an incarcerated hip-hop artist who has long claimed his innocence in a nightclub shooting that put him behind bars 15 years ago.

“The irregularities contained within Mac’s situation are so glaring that we were baited by the facts of the case,” Spell told The Huffington Post. “At some point, we arrived at the opinion that we might be able to successfully reverse an injustice.”

Phipps, who is 15 years into a 30-year sentence, was convicted in the February 2000 shooting of a young man at a concert in Slidell, a city that sits along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish. Prosecutors had no physical evidence linking Phipps to the shooting, and his conviction was handed down by an all-white jury, in spite of another man’s confession to the crime.

At the time of his arrest, Phipps was a 22-year-old rising star in the New Orleans area, whom Master P had signed to No Limit Records alongside Snoop Dogg and Mystikal. According to Spell, who has been practicing law since 1989, Phipps’ celebrity status did not play a role in his office’s decision to take his case.

“It was simply the identification of injustice with the possibility of repair [that] motivated us to engage in this matter,” Spell said.

Spell, who describes himself as a “soldier on the front line in a war against an emerging police state and encroaching governmental tyranny,” said he knew as a child that he wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.

“Atticus Finch was my hero,” Spell said.

Finch, a lawyer in the 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, defended a wrongfully accused African-American client against a rape charge before a bigoted southern jury. A movie by the same name, starring Gregory Peck, was released in 1962.

Spell said he had considered becoming a journalist instead of a lawyer, but was ultimately taken by his fascination with the intellectual underpinnings of the law. The media’s loss turned out to be a gain for the Louisiana defense bar.

A New Orleans native, Spell graduated from St. Martin’s Episcopal School before receiving his undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. In 1989, after receiving his law degree from Loyola University, Spell, then 32, joined an international law firm, where he spent four years navigating some of the more complex waters in maritime personal injury law.

Spell left the law firm in 1993 and opened his own practice. Three years later, he married a law school classmate, civil rights attorney Annie Spell. Together, the couple proved to be a force to be reckoned with. Both became social justice advocates, and Annie served for a time as the only white female NAACP president to complete a term in office. Later, the couple adopted a little girl at birth, whom they named Sarah Jane Spell. Annie has since taken an extended sabbatical as a stay-at-home mom.

Buddy Spell recently moved his practice to a renovated 100-year-old cottage in Covington, and took on two partners: Tara Zeller and Jessica Karr.

Zeller has been helping Spell on the Phipps case. The attorneys took it on earlier this year after The Huffington Post published the results of a lengthy investigation in which multiple witnesses broke their silence for the first time and said in exclusive interviews that they had been threatened, intimidated or ignored by authorities.

Together, Spell and Zeller are attempting to barter a deal with prosecutors that would allow Phipps to be released under a time-served deal. While Spell is confident he will succeed, he is ever mindful of the injustice surrounding Phipps’ case.

Spell said he is also aware — despite the passing of more than a half-century since the publication of Lee’s southern gothic novel — that many of the challenges Finch faced were far from fiction and remain issues in Louisiana today. Those problems, he said, are not limited to Phipps case.

“We see injustice daily, hourly,” Spell said. “We place Mac’s file in our cabinet in the drawer marked ‘P,’ along with the others who have a last name beginning with that letter and who are counting upon us for relief. We feel the burden of our obligation and remind ourselves regularly that we are volunteers in the struggle. We have chosen this path for better or worse, and we have every intention of seeing each and every assignment through to its respective conclusion.”

Spell added, “Mac’s case is but one more battle in a war without end, and each and every battle is important.”

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Remembering Adam Ward

“How do you get a UVA grad off your porch? Pay him for the pizza!” That’s how Adam Ward’s funeral service began, with a joke, which, naturally was aimed at Virginia Tech’s rivals, and a room erupting in laughter — the kind of laughter Adam himself used to inspire. It’s a week later and I’m no closer to understanding how something so horrific could happen to someone so infectiously joyful.

While the world’s eyes were on Roanoke last week, this week most national and international media have made their exodus from this small community I now call home, and though their focus is on the next horrible breaking news story, it’s as if time was frozen here. 8/26/15.

Disclaimer: I did not know Adam my whole life, he was not my best friend, and he was not my relative. He did however, in the short time I got to know him, as the man engaged to my friend, make a lasting impression. Here was someone who, a month ago, didn’t know me, owed me nothing, who in the first week of meeting me, agreed to put together my furniture in exchange for nothing, and, who, upon noticing how many empty boxes I had in my brand new apartment, offered to take them away in his pick-up truck for me, no questions asked.

I hate funerals for a myriad of reasons: depressing music, horribly uncomfortable benches in seemingly all houses of worship, but mostly because you hear the same clichés about people, over and over. Today however, they were all true. In my 25 years, I’ve met maybe a few people who would literally give you the shirt off their back — Adam was one of them. The fact that I was a new friend should give you some idea of just how selfless he was. If he was willing to do this for me, someone he barely knew, someone he could have easily blown off with any excuse, you can imagine what he was like to his loved ones, and to my friend and his fiancé, Melissa.

As a reporter, you get used to jumping into new stories every day, following what’s going on right now — as the old adage goes, if it bleeds it leads, right? I’ve always tried to approach sensitive stories with care, making sure to give my condolences to the families before trying to put feelings aside to complete my job as a reporter. While I have deeply cared about the stories I’ve done, I’ve never realized the impact tragedies like this one have even after the cameras stop rolling. ABC, CNN, CBS, etc. have all moved on to the next story, and they should, the world hasn’t stopped, but experiencing the impact of a story like this from the other side has changed me.

I don’t want people to stop caring about this, because it’s important, because it’s symptomatic of a larger problem, but more so, because I’m biased and because I knew him and because my friend loved him, and because it is just not fair.

I feel the helplessness that the people I interview must feel.

I felt helpless driving to Smith Mountain Lake that morning before we knew what was going on. I felt helpless when the DJ on the radio announced “there were two fatalities, Adam and Alison,” helpless as I began to put together the pieces — two fatalities, WDBJ, Adam and Alison, Melissa’s Adam, Adam Ward. I felt helpless, like someone punched me in the stomach, helpless as I continued to drive while dry heaving and calling my news director, forcing out incoherent sentences over hysterical sobs, trying to tell him what happened. I felt helpless as police chased “the shooter,” helpless as I watched the despicable video the shooter recorded, helpless when I knew it was already too late and Adam couldn’t hear me as I screamed at the video, “turn around Adam, turn around!”

And I feel helpless now, because I know that the outside world is going to move on from this, and that in all likelihood, nothing will change. I feel helpless, because in a matter of hours, this community was turned upside down, along with my friend’s life.

The healing process isn’t as “sexy” to news people as the initial tragedy is, and likely won’t be revisited until another similar shooting, or until next year on August 26th, but I just hope, because that’s pretty much all I can do, that all of this will not have been in vain.

While the town of Roanoke will not soon forget, I just, selfishly, hope that the aftermath of what has happened here doesn’t just get heaped into a gigantic pile of “trending topics on Facebook,” and I hope that people’s attention spans are long enough to keep this in their minds and in their memories, because Adam lived and loved better in his brief 27 years than most people do in a lifetime.

RIP Adam, you will be sorely missed, as evidenced by the thousands of people who waited in a three and a half hour line just to console your family.

P.S. I loved the Rihanna and Lady Gaga music playing at your wake yesterday, great touch, and made me think of you and Melissa dancing up a storm with me at Corner Stone just a few weeks ago.

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Son Of Baltimore Commander Charged With Roommate’s Murder

The son of a prominent police official in Baltimore has been arrested and charged with murder following the fatal stabbing of his roommate. 

A fight between Melvin Russell, 28, and his 49-year-old roommate ended with both men suffering from multiple stab wounds, Fox Baltimore reports. The roommate, who has not been identified, was taken to an area hospital and later succumbed to his injuries.

Russell was treated for stab wounds to his arm and then released, CBS Baltimore reports. He is charged with first- and second-degree murder, as well as assault and weapons violations.

The accused is the son of Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, who leads the Baltimore Police Department’s Community Collaboration Unit, according to the Baltimore Sun.

To avoid a conflict of interest, the Baltimore County prosecutor’s office will be assigned the case, rather than Baltimore state’s attorney’s office.

“State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby has a personal relationship with this family and felt it best to refer this case to an independent prosecutor,” Mosby’s office said in a statement, according to the Sun.

The Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police shared the following tweet in support of the elder Russell.

There are few men better than Lt. Col. Melvin Russell and we offer our total support as he and his family suffer through this trying time

— Baltimore City FOP (@FOP3) September 2, 2015

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