Wednesday, November 10th, 2010
33

The Christopher Jusko Murder and the Campaign Against Photographs of Dead Bodies

Recently a news organization published a photograph of a rather recently dead body. The former person in question photographed had been murdered and presumably the news outfit felt that a murder on its local turf had some news value. The victim's family and friends were about ten kinds of furious. Meanwhile, written coverage of the murder and its circumstances was vigorous and regular on a number of New York City-based websites, including Gothamist and the Times, in large part because it took place in the East Village. Year-to-date, there have been four murders in the East Village's Ninth Precinct, though I couldn't tell you what the other three were. It's reasonable that this is an item of news. The other publications' stories include neighbors bad-mouthing the victim and their accounts of seeing the body and also praise for the character of the alleged killer. But it's the picture that's enraged people and sent the family's friends and social networks into a campaign of furious mail. Eventually, the publication apparently reasoned it just wasn't worth the harassment and they took down the photo.

"Someone with absolutely no conscience snapped a cell phone pic of his body before the police arrived and sent it to GAWKER.com who published it, unlike every reputable news site that ran photos of the covered body," the victim's uncle wrote. He wanted people to write the editor a letter—"to write this arrogant little shit a note," is how he put it.

And then later:

It's is a sad reality that we needed to mount such an effort and bring the Hammer of God down on them to rectify something that should never have been an issue in the first place. Don't be fooled by the seemingly altruistic post on the GAWKER site concerning the photo's removal. Remy Stern was adamant in his refusal to remove the picture before last night. The credit for it's removal lies solely at the feet of all of you who took the time to voice your disgust and revulsion at such irresponsible yellow journalism in it's worst incarnation.

There was a lesson. "Apparently when enough voices are raised in opposition to something so immoral the offenders have no option but to concede."

That might be true but it's also true in this world that when a group of people send a stream of invective-filled emails, sooner or later, one does tend to not want to deal with it. When the victim's uncle wrote "Hammer of God," he's not really kidding. The emails were pretty intense!

The family—if not their random social network acquaintances—are, I think, entitled to behave pretty much as they wish at such a time. If they want to spend the days after a tragedy writing blistering emails to the media about a photograph, that's a far better channeling of rage than hunting down the alleged killer's family for retribution. And if you put yourself in their shoes, I bet any coverage of the murder at all feels invasive—at best.

And still it all keeps coming back to the body. "Every reputable news site… ran photos of the covered body," he wrote. So that's okay. It's the idea of "disrespect" to the body that rankled. For those of us who aren't Christian or religious at all, this idea can seem so odd—as weird as the (expressed) rationale for the Bush administration banning photographs of war dead (photographs which surely do have decided news value—less true in this case) or as weird as the idea of heaven.

The one media critic to address this came to a conclusion. "Having to speak with, say, the friends of a murdered man — as the Times did in its Jusko coverage — will make a journalist think twice about publishing a photo of the man's bloody corpse…. Gawker probably believes its lack of engagement with its subjects makes it more independent — more free to report the actual truth, that is, rather than a truth mitigated by emotional considerations. In reality, this disconnect simply allows the site to be more callous in its coverage."

This certainly reaffirms the idea of publishing photos of dead bodies as an explicit insult, a "callous" one, one made from a distance. If we knew the body, or if we knew the people who knew the body, this reasoning goes, we wouldn't dare publish photos of it. Because to do so can only, apparently, be evil.

33 Comments / Post A Comment

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

"Most of their stories seem not to involve any reporting whatsoever, beyond surfing the Internet; their beats are explored digitally rather than by the proverbial pounding of pavement. There's nothing essentially wrong about this, of course, but it can create a gaping disconnect between reporter and subject."

Please do not take this as an injunction to get closer to bears.

Rollo (#3,202)

Next let's protest the publication of Weegee photos.

Polly Peachum (#8,145)

I like Wegee, but was he the one who took the photo of the child falling to his death when he might have been able to help?

Rollo (#3,202)

Do you mean this one? (That's Stanley Forman, if so.)

HiredGoons (#603)

You beat me to it. I don't understand the bizarre dichotomy between the viciousness of human beings and the relentless urge to gloss over anything even remotely unpleasant.

Get a pair, society.

zidaane (#373)

#FACESOFDEATH

Polly Peachum (#8,145)

I knew a moron in grad school who loved those videos and used to loudly describe them in the dining room.

The way we treat death, especially the remains of people we dislike, says a lot about us as a culture.

HiredGoons (#603)

'The way we treat death, especially the remains of people we dislike, says a lot about us as a culture.'

I agree, which is why we should allow it. Isn't it better to show our true face, even if it is an ugly one?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Or we could endeavor to make our true face less ugly.

HiredGoons (#603)

good luck with that.

Polly Peachum (#8,145)

The context matters. Showing Americans the human cost of war is one thing. Allowing creeps to get their jollies over dead bodies (and there will be nothing egalitarian about it; some people will always be free from exploitation and violation); I think not.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

This is like the time Denton published the video of Nick Berg's "Bloopers, Blunders & Practical Jokes" with the tagline #laffyourheadoff.

KarenUhOh (#19)

There are a number of valid, context-driven reasons to publish a photograph of a body, I'd think. Then there's publishing a get; to break a story, graphically, that no one else has or will, because one has the wherewithal and the desire to do so.

One assumes between the idea and the act lies the chalk outline.

Polly Peachum (#8,145)

I didn't see the Gawker post, but as someone who long ago did cover some stories like that, including having to ask the bereaved family for "piano art," (personal photos of the victim), it's true that publishing bodies of "routine" crime victims is extremely insensitive. It's a violation, and it coarsens people. Have you ever leafed through Luc Sante's book, "Evidence," which collects old New York Police Department photos? Almost 100 years later, the photos are really disturbing.
There's no larger purpose in publishing such photos, as there would be in publishing the photos of a political assassination victim or the casualties of war.
There's no right to gawk, especially on the web.

HiredGoons (#603)

'it coarsens people.'

Really? Because when I look at pictures of dead bodies I get rather maudlin.

No offense, but I disagree with just about everything you said.

sharilyn (#4,599)

@Polly: I disagree profoundly. I work with news photographers and I saw many photos of the uncovered body. Normally this is not possible because the police lock up a crime scene right away, but due to the population density of the neighborhood and the gal time in it being reported to the police, I would estimate that most outlets saw uncovered photos of Mr Jusko's dead body. And made the routine decision not to publish it.
Photos of death make most people uncomfortable; especially gruesome, violent death. A crime like that represents the most abhorrent miscarriage of our social contract – who can think about doing laundry or getting groceries when worried about random murderous attacks?
But there's a profound counterargument for publishing photos like this: our world is a fragile one and is falling apart in little ways all the time. Suicides are up. The sheer number of people who interact with the subway tracks would alarm anyone who doesn't have a police scanner! News photos coming from Mexico show that decapitations are becoming relatively commonplace there! One guy bleeding out on the sidewalk would hardly merit a second glance south of the border.
I think news outlets don't show these photo for the most part not out of respect for the dead so much as a respect for the living. It's alienating to look at these images of destruction day after day, ask anyone who worked on covering the earthquake in haiti if you don't believe me. If all the news was bad, few people would spend their hardearned dollars buying news.

saythatscool (#101)

If you're worried about the public's right to see dead bodies, why not write about the destruction of the CIA tapes?

I hear there were a bunch of corpses in those.

gregorg (#30)

And somewhere in Langley, a torturer smiles, hearing that his simulated killing was mistaken for the real thing.

barnhouse (#1,326)

To some extent you're looking at the image WITH the person who published it; seeing it through his eyes, kind of. So bad images like say the Lynndie England ones could evoke a lot of different things, depending on what you're being asked to see. You could have Lynndie England with the caption "Your Tax Dollars at Work!" or "God Bless Our Patriotic U.S. Military" or "Jesus Christ, here is a U.S. soldier giving the thumbs-up to this terrible scene." And there's almost always something that the publisher is meaning for you to think. Isn't the real problem with that, what you're being asked to think, rather than with a troubling image in itself?

ep (#8,509)

The reason it is considered disrespectful in the extreme to publish a photo of a murder victim like this is because it is allowing physical reality to pollute the social reality where the victim still exists. The victim may be dead but he is, as we all are, still thought of by others.

Which is to say that those most unavoidably shocking aspects of our physical existence—our weakness in illness and disease, our indulgences in sex, our necessities in the bathroom—are necessarily hidden away to make space for a common social ground. If too much of a person's "creatureliness" is showing in public their social standing suffers. The family here is outraged because nothing exposes one's weakness before physical reality like bleeding to death on a sidewalk. Not to mention how being killed makes one helpless to defend one's character. And seeing a person in such a shocking state fundamentally effects how you think of them. "Intrusive" sort of gets at what's happening, but I think their email campaign has more to do with reinforcing the expectation that we care for each other's reputation as much as we care for each other's physical well-being. Even those we don't know.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Right, but how messed up is it that this has to be EXPLAINED?

sharilyn (#4,599)

@Polly: I disagree profoundly. I work with news photographers and I saw many photos of the uncovered body. Normally this is not possible because the police lock up a crime scene right away, but due to the population density of the neighborhood and the lag time in it being reported to the police, I would estimate that most outlets saw uncovered photos of Mr Jusko's dead body. And made the routine decision not to publish it.
Photos of death make most people uncomfortable; especially gruesome, violent death. A crime like that represents the most abhorrent miscarriage of our social contract – who can think about doing laundry or getting groceries when worried about random murderous attacks?
But there's a profound counterargument for publishing photos like this: our world is a fragile one and is falling apart in little ways all the time. Suicides are up. The sheer number of people who interact with the subway tracks would alarm anyone who doesn't have a police scanner! News photos coming from Mexico show that decapitations are becoming relatively commonplace there! One guy bleeding out on the sidewalk would hardly merit a second glance south of the border.
I think news outlets don't show these photo for the most part not out of respect for the dead so much as a respect for the living. It's alienating to look at these images of destruction day after day, ask anyone who worked on covering the earthquake in Haiti if you don't believe me. If all the news was bad, few people would spend their hardearned dollars buying news.

6h057 (#1,914)

A few years ago my family had a closed casket funeral for an aunt. The undertaker suggested we not view the body as we probably wouldn't recognize her (she had been beaten to death by her ex-husband). It struck me how viewing her (for the last time) needed to be presented in the best possible way, that the most lasting memory could possibly be the last.

So if Jusko's family can't bear to see this man as vulnerable, as mortal in all this gruesome and gory detail then they have a right to request respect to the deceased. But if they're going to feel righteous and praise the Hammer of God then I'm not surprised at people's positive reaction to Jusko being killed or feeling like the guy got what he deserved.

janine (#248)

I'm not that religious, but I've figured out a pretty failsafe moral compass. Just do the opposite of anything Nick Denton would do.

But seriously, I don't have a distant, intellectualized argument here, I just know that when I was younger I had the same sort of athiest, "who cares about a person's body," thing and then, after I put my parents in the ground, it bothers me when it snows. So it would drive me crazy if someone did this to a loved one. And if there isn't a greater good to be served other than pageviews, I don't see what we're arguing. I'm not an absolutist, but this is Gawker for the love of Pete. There aint no Sy Hershes over there.

janine (#248)

…I mean anyone who read the New Yorker piece knows exactly what that post was about.

BadUncle (#153)

I don't think you need to be religious to find publishing these kinds of photos disrespectful. Showing someone at his or her most vulnerable state seems wrong to me. One is stripped of even the power over how one will be remembered.

Naturally, I'm mostly concerned about how posterity will treat the photos of my inevitable demise in an auto-erotic public performance on a pyramid of monkeys.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

To hell with all this whining and phenomenology. Of course running pictures of corpses is disrespectful. Redeeming value? I don't see a lot, myself, but that's not my call where I'm not the editor. Those who have the stomach for corpses, run the hell out of mangled corpses and let somebody else be respectful and self-censoring and harmless. I don't think I have the stomach, but I would respect Gawker more if it didn't cave in.

ep (#8,509)

…I would respect Gawker more if it didn't cave in.
I don't doubt it.

Aatom (#74)

I guess, but I suspect it's not the original post that Denton really considers the payoff. It's THIS part, where we all argue ourselves silly about it.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

I disagree. The critiquey discussion here doesn't really add to his notoriety, *and* it builds a rival brand.

Belmondo (#6,210)

This is why I choose beef that's been sliced and diced in far off factories: to keep reality as far away as possible, where it belongs. It's not cow, it's steak.

What a fucked up world we live in. *sigh*

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