Stop Sharing Traumatizing Images of Migrant Kids

There is an important line between bringing attention to children in distress and exploiting them.

Melanie Pineda, Opinion Editor

It’s no secret that migrants entering the United States from Mexico are being treated inhumanely. We’ve seen shoeless children crying at the border. Kids greeting their parents after being separated for months, only to barely recognize them and shove them away. Although migrants must travel a dangerous journey to get to the U.S. with no guarantee of water or food, grown men have told news outlets that if they had known about the suffering U.S. immigration officials would put them through, they would’ve never made the journey. Adults and children alike are dying in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody without any clear indication as to how responsible the agency is for these deaths.

The situation only gets worse. A story recently broke with advocates claiming there were visible bruises on children being held in an unofficial holding center for migrants under a bridge in El Paso, Texas. Images of the children laying on space blankets on the ground were shared by media outlets such as CNN. Accounts from the migrants forced to stay under the bridge said they were afraid they were going to die there.

Many of these images, however, come at a cost. Most reliable news outlets share these images with the intention of providing much-needed attention to the issues currently going on at the border. And although journalists and news outlets hold a certain responsibility to inform the public, these images of children are often overshared and turned into what is known as trauma porn, or media which exploits people living in poor conditions for personal gain. Rather than focus on the issues at hand, people fixate on the trauma itself, indirectly belittling the actual human subjects behind the photos.

Time and time again we’ve seen the argument of where the line between exploitation and education lies, such as the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a vulture creeping on a Sudanese child, or when videos of black people being killed by police go viral. And while it is important to note that photojournalists bring stories alive and hold an important role in informing the public, images of kids — specifically those who are crossing the border —  should not be the next demographic that photographers and social media users capitalize on.

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The bigger problem starts when audiences romanticize these images by sharing them. During the family separations migrants endured last summer — and are still enduring — countless videos of children being reunited with parents were shared, filling my timeline. But there are also unexpected consequences with sharing these images. By not taking into account the effect these videos may have on others, people become inured to these occurrences. In fact, a photo of a child symbolically being held in a cage went viral last summer and was automatically thought to be a part of the family separations as well.

What these users and videographers also don’t realize is how truly haunting some of these videos were for Latino communities. Seeing men and women who look like my own parents cry over children who look like my nephews and nieces was an emotionally exhausting and triggering experience for me. It brought on the same sense of fear and despair I feel when these same people share videos of immigration officials arresting people and dragging them away from their homes. The same fear ingrained into my family members who aren’t U.S. citizens. The same anxiety felt at every checkpoint, every court check-up, every interview with an ICE agent. Awareness of the issues may have increased, but at an emotional cost felt by others in similar situations, such as sexual assault survivors forced to share their stories and the black community when discussing police brutality.

As a journalism major, I understand the importance of spreading awareness of the crimes occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border. But as the daughter of immigrants, I also know that we should be caring about these children regardless of whether or not photos of their heart-wrenching experiences are being taken. Their narratives should be controlled by those directly affected by the issues at hand. If we continue to allow outlets with inauthentic intentions to profit off vital issues affecting migrant youth, we are only further creating room for harmful, false narratives surrounding immigrant communities.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 8, 2019, print edition. Email Melanie Pineda at [email protected]

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