New York Post's subway death photo stirs debate over journalistic ethics

Some journalistic values are not necessarily the same as human values -- a fact that explains much about the uproar over Tuesday's front-page photo in the New York Post. "Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die," screamed the headline under the word: "DOOMED."

The man's name was Ki Suk Han, a 58-year-old Korean immigrant from Queens. The photo capturing the last seconds of his life has provoked soul-searching and outrage over journalistic ethics -- or lack of them.

Practically nobody is defending the Post for publishing it -- or its photographer for taking it. Aside from journalistic misconduct, there were disquieting reports that none of the 18 bystanders bothered to help Han. Yet various witnesses said he was on the tracks for a minute or more, scrambling to pull himself onto the platform.

Overwhelmingly, outrage over the photo is being directed at photographer R. Umar Abbasi, a freelancer for the iconic tabloid that regularly trades in sensational stories.

As the subway bore down on Han, Abbasi snapped photos of him clinging to the platform - instead of helping him up from the tracks. Or at least, that's how it seemed.

No doubt sensing a controversy over Abbasi's actions, the Post's original story lamely explained that he'd used his flash to alert the subway's motorman to Han's presence. Accordingly, photographing Han about to be "crushed like a rag doll" was merely incidental to his efforts to save him. It was hardly credible.

Abbasi also initially claimed that he wasn't strong enough to lift Han up from the tracks (although Abbasi's photo suggests that Han, who was trying to pull himself up, only needed a helping hand to climb onto the platform). Nobody offered him one. Han had reportedly exchanged words with his dread-locked attacker, a loud-mouthed panhandler. Police subsequently arrested 30-year-old Naeem Davis.

In a first-person account in Wendesday's New York Post, Abbasi defended himself with a slightly different version of his role in the tragedy than what was originally published in the Post. He insisted he was never close enough to help Han and has been anguished over what happened.

One can debate the ethics of publishing the photo, presenting arguments for and against. On the negative side, of course, the photo sells newspapers by appealing to an ugly voyeuristic and prurient streak in readers. On the other hand, it provides a searing and unforgettable drama of a horrific crime, showing the dark side of New York's subway system where predators are all too common. Even so, didn't the Post have any more appropriate photos to publish for the sake of good taste, decency, and the feelings of Han's family? It seems that the paper did have other photos based on what Abbasi related.

Abbasi's conduct would be indefensible if he could have helped Han but instead chose to take pictures. True, journalists and photojournalists ought to be impartial professional witnesses; but that detachment doesn't mean they stop being citizens, first and foremost.

Criticism over Abbasi is that if he had the presence of mind to snap photos of Han, then he surely had the presence of mind to make a credible rescue effort; and after that effort he could have taken all the photos he wanted - either of Han having survived a terrible scare or alternatively (if his rescue effort had failed) of Han's being tended by a doctor who was among the bystanders. Either way, Abbasi would have been a hero -- not a villain (although Abbasi now says in his first-person account, to be sure, that there was too little time for a rescue; that he only could fire off his flash to catch the motorman's attention).

Outrage over Abbasi's actions are similar to the public revulsion over the paparazzi in France who eagerly snapped close-up photos of a dying Princess Diana. None of those photographs were ever published in mainstream publications; editors felt that doing so would push the limits of decency and good taste. Couldn't the Post have made a similar decision?

Journalistic misconduct aside, there also were all those distributing reports of able-bodied witnesses doing nothing to help Han, who was heading to renew his passport.

Some bystanders were stunned or afraid, clueless as to what to do. "People who were on the platform could have pulled him up but they didn't have the courage. They just didn't react like that," said Patrick Gomez, 37, who admitted to being guilty of the same inaction.

Aside from fear, there were examples of callousness. The subway's traumatized motorman expressed disgust that as a young doctor and others tended to Han, some bystanders "were taking pictures of the poor gentleman. They didn't want to leave." How to explain this? It could well be the result of a society saturated for years with violent and vulgar images on television, video games, and the Internet. For them, Han's death represented an opportunity to take some photos with their cell phones in order to post them on YouTube or show to friends.

To be sure, there are reports every day of ordinary citizens -- good Samaritans -- who risk physical danger to come to the aid of others. And, yes, this happens in New York City. But unfortunately, none of these sorts of people were around to help Han.

Other able-bodied witness may have figured that somebody else would come to the rescue -- a reflection of a certain mind set that can occur among numerous bystanders: what's now called the "Genovese Syndrome" -- a phenomena of "diffused responsibility" leading to inaction. It was coined after the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old New Yorker who was stabbed to death near her home. Her cries for help were ignored by numerous apartment dwellers according to initial media reports. Although the "Genovese Syndrome" is now taught in psychology and sociology classes, later investigations raised doubts about what neighbors in fact heard or failed to do.

As more information comes to light about Ki Suk Han's gruesome death, a more sympathetic picture may well emerge to explain the behavior of some bystanders -- those who should have done more.

As for Abbasi and his editors, their careers will forever be defined by a low point in American journalism.

Editor's note: After some debate, AT decided to publish a graphic of the front page in question, as that is the essence of the very story itself.  While the New York Post was encouraging other photographers to get the picture instead of helping the victim, and presuambly enriching itself with more newstand sales by publishing the photo on its cover, our motive is to have a serious discussion of the ethical issues involved.  We recognize that we can be called hypocrites for publishing the very thing the author criticizes the Post for spashing on its front page, but we did not reward the photographer for his choice to document, not rescue, and we are not hyping the picture on our home page.  That makes all the difference, ethically. -TL