Pictures tell a thousand words in helping to change opinions
ON June 8, 1972, aircraft dropped napalm bombs on Trang Bang in Vietnam.
In a vicious and protracted war, napalm and the horror it could wreak was nothing new. Its petroleum jelly mixture had already killed and maimed countless thousands.
Four days later however, what became one of the defining photographs of the 20th century was splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world.
In that iconic picture, crying children, including a naked nine-year old Kim Phuc, her back hideously burned, were shown running down the highway, trailed by US and Vietnamese troops and clouds of oily smoke.
That photograph is as confronting today as it was more than 40 years ago.
That photograph helped turn the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War.
It humanised the ugly reality and innocent suffering of the conflict, turning otherwise faceless statistics into real human lives.
This has always been the job of the modern media; to cut through the ennui, the spin, the static and the statistics, and to confront people with the sometimes uncomfortable truths of our world. It is why some of the most viewed images of the last century have been the assassination of JFK, or the pictures of Martin Luther King lying in state after he too fell to a sniper’s bullet.
The words and images are challenging and disturbing, but they simply recount what is happening; without sugar coating, without censorship and without fear or favour.
The same applies today, which is why so many newspapers around the world carried graphic and confronting images of the shooting at a Virginia TV station in America this week.
Newspapers that 43 years ago ran that seminal Vietnam War era photograph of a young Kim Phuc have been attacked in some circles for somehow pushing the boundaries too far.
Wrong. What so many media organisations, across numerous modern delivery platforms, did was to simply confront people with the chilling and all too human face of gun violence in America.
The media’s coverage of the killings – which the gunman filmed like a point-of-view video game and then posted to social media for all to see – has sparked a renewed debate about gun control in America.
Suddenly gun death – which claims the life of one person every 16 minutes in the US – is again front and centre, not because one isolated story has been told, but because it has been humanised and, via the media, contextualised.
The news may not always be pleasant, but our media is just a messenger. The agent of change is people who are confronted with the facts, no matter how unpleasant.