IRRC No. 315

Images of humanitarian crises: Ethical implications

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With the long-heralded advent of the information age, the upheaval caused by the proliferation of visual technologies in a society dominated by the media is forcing the entire spectrum of what used to be called “the press” to redefine itself, to reassess its professional code of ethics and to devise new working methods. Only by examining the role played by images in the global flow of information—especially their relationship to the written word—can we fully grasp what is at stake. Our world view is increasingly shaped by the images, televised or in print, to which the public is constantly exposed. Indeed, so great is their power that one can say, along with many analysts, that they are beginning to replace reality: only what has been authenticated, certified and validated by being photographed or filmed and shown on television really exists. As these images bombard us from all sides, everything that has not been seen captured on film is reduced to oblivion. What makes the power of images so irresistible?Images impart values. They attract or repel. They appeal to our imagination, play on our feelings and rouse us from our complacency: in other words, images stir our conscience because they purport to show us, in the raw, the unadorned, indisputable reality of things as they are. That is television's great ambition, that is its purpose; and that is what prompted Régis Debray to say that “television is fond of humanitarian stories since they are both human interest stories and moral tales”. Over the years, images of humanitarian action have invaded the media and fired people's imagination.

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