MAY 2017 - Visual Ethics, The New York Times, and C.J. Chivers

Photo Caption and Credit: Manchester Arena entrance from Victoria station. The foyer of the Arena is behind the doors at the end of the walkway from the station concourse. The foyer was the site of the bombing suicide attack in May 2017. As of February 2018, the walkway and foyer were still closed off for refurbishment. (Courtesy of G-13114/Wikimedia Commons)

By Sydney Abrams

In May of 2017, the New York Times released leaked photos from the Manchester Arena suicide bombing attack that killed 22 people after an Ariana Grande concert in Britain. The photos consisted of closeups of shrapnel, batteries, screws, and other investigated pieces of the bomb. The New York Times journalist, C.J. Chivers, was responsible for writing the piece and finding the leaked photos. According to Emily Bell, a journalist from The Guardian, Chivers was ex-military personnel which led authorities to believe he used his background to obtain the photos (Bell, 2017). The UK government and police were enraged that confidential photos of national security had been revealed to the public through a mass media news source. 

In her article, Bell claimed that Chivers’s photos were not only inappropriate but also “a deliberate challenge from the US.” (Bell, 2017). In addition, the leaked photos were a “reflection of the fact that when it comes to making decisions about national security coverage, US journalism follows a different set of priorities,” she said (Bell, 2017). In Chivers’s piece, he discussed the logistics of the bombing, rather than the victims and their families, he claimed that “the photos had come from British authorities,” and referred to them as “Law enforcement images,” (Chivers, 2017). It is still unknown how he acquired the photos as no other journalists posted the same images.

Liz Spayd, another journalist at the New York Times, published an article in response to the backlash that Chivers attracted. As stated in Spayd’s article, the photos were taken by British authorities, however, the source of how the photos were leaked was never mentioned. Spayd described the photos as “eerie detail” and as “forensic evidence” (Spayd, 2017). Spayd also said that due to Chivers’s photos, “British officials are accusing U.S. intelligence of leaking the material, saying it could seriously impede an investigation into the deadliest terrorist attack in Britain in more than a decade” (Spayd, 2017).

Besides The Guardian, most news sources didn’t criticize Chivers’s leaked photos, however, they did cover the Manchester bombing themselves. According to The Guardian, both CBS and NBC aired the bomber’s name, Salman Abedi, online, and on television (Bell, 2017). These sources further disregarded the wishes of UK security as it was clearly stated that the UK did not want Salman Abedi’s name to be released.

The article published by Chivers was never taken down from the New York Times website and is still online today regardless of the anxieties it caused. It was a complicated matter because the leaked photos did not appear to damage the British official’s investigation and provided relevant insight for the public while still being controversial. Journalists face issues like this very often as a journalist’s job is to report the truth. When government, police, or political figures are involved, it is up to the journalist to determine if certain information should be withheld from public knowledge. According to “Online Journalism Ethics”, journalists have four guiding principles: to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable (Friend & Singer, 2007, p.xix). When Chivers published the leaked photos, he was, in fact, seeking the truth and reporting it. The eight photos gave logistical insight into how the terrorist bombing occurred.

As stated by Richard Ericson, police are “protective of facts about their investigations”, and “the police traffic in images that are indeed the thin blue line between order and chaos”(Ericson, 2989, p. 206). In regards to the leaked photos from the Manchester Arena bombing, British officials had the responsibility to preserve information from public view until they deemed appropriate. Chivers got in the way even though what he did was not illegal. Both the British officials and Chivers wanted to have control over public knowledge of the situation. 

Works Cited: 
Bell, E. (2017, May 28). NYT’s publication of leaked Manchester material reveals transatlantic differences. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/may/28/nyt-leaked-manchester-material-reveals-transatlantic-differences.
Chivers, C. J. (2017, May 24). Found at the Scene in Manchester: Shrapnel, a Backpack and a Battery. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/05/24/world/europe/manchester-arena-bomb-materials-photos.html. 
Friend, C., & Singer, J. B. (2007). Online journalism ethics: traditions and transitions (Vol. 85). M.E. Sharpe. 
Ericson, R. V. (1989). Patrolling the Facts: Secrecy and Publicity in Police Work. The British Journal of Sociology, 40(2), 205–226. https://doi.org/10.2307/590269 
Spayd, L. (2017, May 25). The Bombing, the Crime Scene Photos and the Outcry. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/25/public-editor/manchester-bombing-leaks-liz-spayd-public-editor.html.