Princess Diana, the Media, and All of Us



academic || multicultural || politics || paparazzi || shared parenting


by Jennifer Hicks

Article III of the White House News Photographers Association, in part, says that the members "strongly believe in the public's natural and legal right to freedom in searching for the truth and the right to be accurately and completely informed about the world in which we live..."

What it neglects to take into account is the nature of the truth that photographers search for in an instance such as the one faced by Diana, Princess of Wales just last night.

Will the world be a better, wiser, stronger, more just planet if we know who is kissing whom when? Will we be able to clothe those who need clothing if we know who wears what when? Or will we be able to feed those who are hungry if we know a particular celebrity's dinner menu?

Unfortunately, the many photographers who do ascribe to the eighth item in the WHNPA code, who are "sensitive to matters of privacy and the grief of others", were not at the scene of the fatal accident in Paris. If they had been, perhaps a tragedy might have been averted.

As it stands, the photographs of the crash itself have been offered for sale. Several of the tabloids in the US have turned them down. So too have many in the UK and other nations.

Will this media gesture help us remember, a week from now, that we do not need certain pictures?

Where will we draw the line between that which is private, which has no immediate importance to anyone but ourselves, and that which must be known? In some instances perhaps this is a tough call.

Look at the photograph that ran throughout the world after the Oklahoma City bombing. A dead child lay in the arms of a soot-weary firefighter. A clearly personal picture to the family, but one that immediately conveyed the tragedy and loss that occurred. Did we learn to feel compassion because of this picture?

I think some of us did.

We hear so often of horrific tragedies. Children are gunned down in drive-by shootings; men beat the life out of women they claim to love; mothers stand by while their children are sexually assaulted by their lovers.

The Oklahoma City photograph changed that for an instant. We understood, finally, that the tragedies we tuned out every day involved real people--just like us.

But what would we have learned if the photographers allegedly involved in the pursuit in Paris had been able to snap one more photo of Princess Diana? Would it have made us all a better people? More compassionate? More humane and able to follow in her footsteps?

I think not. I think instead we are left, finally, to examine not just the ethics of the media, but of ourselves. If we look at them, will we see anything worth taking a photograph of?

A remarkable thing happened in the aftermath. The broadcast news was full of Diana's life and compassion. The online media was full of up-to-the-minute newswires of which lawyer would defend whom. Email lists were overloaded with personal speculation about the cause of the crash and who was to blame.

In the middle of it all, GeoCities had an interactive message board put up where people could remember the Princess.

This is the Internet at its best. Contributors were everyday people and well known journalists and photographers. Each wrote, with no censure, whatever they wanted. Some wrote briefly and movingly of what the Princess of Wales meant to them. Others were vituperative and castigated the media involved. Others wrote of Diana's compassion for humanity and the good work she had done. Still others wrote that we should not forget her work; we should carry on.

To me, the most overwhelming sentiment that was expressed was that we, individually and collectively, are the ones who decide what will and won't work in the media we buy.

Do we really need another picture of a person trying to live a private life?

August 31, 1997