Exploitation or Activism?

“What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.”
― W.H. Auden, ‘The Dryers Hand’ 

The above quote from Auden, I believe, is a form of reasoning of how the media can feed the public many different narratives of the same issue. What may start out as a tragedy will eventually evolve to be depicted in many varying forms, from tragedy, to conspiracy and throughout, the wave of exploitation will eventually consume the whole event. This is what this blog post will discuss, as to whether traditional forms of the media, i.e. newspapers and television, seek to exploit or raise activism regarding events of our lifetime.

The central example of my argument will be the John F. Kennedy assassination, as I feel that this event has gone through a “media shift” over the past 50 years, from tragedy to exploitation.




Note that the first image, of passengers on a bus, depicts a range of varying styles, from ones recognizing his career and those that have KENNEDY DEAD blasted over their front pages. However, the bottom two are more surreal; and especially for their time period, would be quite confrontational. The U.K.’s Daily Mirror, with it’s subheading of Jackie holds dying husband below the image of the widow and Secret Service Agent Clint Hill trying to protect him. New Yorks Daily News meanwhile depicts two photographs of suspected-assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s final moments as he is shot. The final expression caught on Oswald’s face is incredibly ghouly, as the bullet penetrates his body. Today’s print media would be stepping over one-another to print these images, and quite honestly, had Zapruder’s film been caught on a smartphone and quickly uploaded to Youtube, a still-image would be on the front page of The Daily Telegraph and be consecutively looped by our TV networks.

Jon Herskovitz of Reuters states in his article, How the JFK assassination transformed media coverage,

“Six seconds in Dallas 50 years ago changed the way media worked for decades to come… For four days, starting with gunfire in Dallas and ending with Kennedy’s funeral procession in Washington, major U.S. TV networks went live with wall-to-wall coverage, suspending commercials.”

In 1950, roughly 9% of U.S. households had a television set, by 1960 it was 90%. Prior to this media form, radio and print media were the only access to flash media reports, however television now brought tragedy into the living rooms of Americans, and with that brought the images of chaos and emotion. According to Patty Rhule of the Newseum in Washington D.C., a survey at the time found that 2/3’s of Americans watching the JFK events unfold either fell ill or felt emotional distress. CBS, whose Walter Cronkite’s reports would become legendary, were the first to implement instant-replay when they looped the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, a technology that was meant to debut weeks later at the Army vs. Navy NFL match. On the day of the late President’s funeral, 81% of American households had their television sets switched on and tuned in, one of the largest ever recorded.

Whilst initially media coverage was just as shocked and saddened as the general public, over the next 50 years we have seen the JFK tragedy turn from being a day to remember to a day to exploit. The Zapruder film has been viewed millions, if not billions, of times around the world, with the images of a dead Kennedy on the autopsy table being included in a range of television documentaries and print media articles. The journal article, JFK and Dark Tourism: A fascination with assassination, by Malcolm Foley and John Lennon, examines this foray into the dark fascination of one man’s death. Their central argument is that in the years since JFK was killed, the media has shifted away from depicting it as a somber tragedy to mere exploitation with darkened tones and grisly showcases. Foley furthers this by noting that when John F. Kennedy Junior died in 1999, the media seeked to exploit the sadness of the public with constant coverage and hounding Kennedy family members; examples of being pure exploitation and the opposite of what should be done if one was truly saddened and concerned.

The 2001, New York Times article; Photography Review; Can suffering be too beautiful?”, by Michael Kilman, discusses that photojournalism is a form of exploitation. Specifically, the article investigates the work of Sebastian Salgado, whose photography talents have seen him travel and document regions of Africa with famine, gold mines and slave labor. The photos look beautifully artistic, with their black and white style, gloss over the content of the malnourished African people. This raises questions, is this a form of exploitation, or does it raise awareness? If the photos raise awareness, raise anger and shock around the globe, then it is activism for a good cause. However, if Salgado’s work is just recognized for it’s artistic beauty, with little ho-hum “those poor people” and not much else, then it is pure, to the core exploitation. Photos of the Holocaust, it’s dead and alive, are examples of history captured to remind us of where we should never go back. And the same can be said for Salgado’s work, we should look beyond the beauty, the media deception of art, to the content and be shocked, horrified that this is a day to day practice in the same world we share. As the article pinpoints,

“Of course his photographs are exploitative. Most good photojournalism is. As Cartier-Bresson once said: ”There is something appalling about photographing people. It is certainly some form of violation. So if sensitivity is lacking, there can be something barbaric about it.” (pg.2)


So, in final thought, does the media exploit or does it try to raise awareness and activism? The answer, much like the question, is purely subjective. Blasting images of a dead President Kennedy, or his final moments in Frame 313, or merely just broadcasting Salgado’s work recognizing his photolistic talent; are all forms of exploitation if we choose not to recognize the tragedy and look into the art and content, not just it’s one-dimensionalism.



Carl Mydan, Time Life Pictures

Herskovitz, J 2013 “How the JFK assassination transformed media coverage”, Reuters, accessed 18th March 2016 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-jfk-media-idUSBRE9AK11N20131121

International Journal of Heritage Studies, Volume 2, Issue 4, 1996, “JFK and Dark Tourism: A fascination with assassination”, accessed 18th March 2016 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/ref/10.1080/13527259608722175

Kimmelamn, M 2001, “Photography Review, Can suffering be too beautiful?”, New York Times, accessed via Moodle 19th March 2016


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