Graphic photos of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on a Turkish beach posed a big question to the media: Whether to publish such grim images that shake humanity to the core.
As the debate split newsrooms, the decision to carry the pictures vetoed by a section of the media explicitly pointed to the need of the digital age.
Big publications carrying jarring photos of the child's body in a bright red T-shirt and blue shorts carried a clear message: There is every right to disturb people when the surroundings are fraught with the ugliness of a monstrous refugee crisis, beheadings and bloody wars.
No matter if the images appeared in a newspaper or not, the world would have known and watched anyway.
For those who carried Aylan's photos, the act of publication did not violate the sacredness of a body – an argument presented by some Twitter users.
“The image is not offensive, it is not gory, it is not tasteless--it is merely heartbreaking and stark testimony of an unfolding human tragedy that is playing out in Syria, Turkey and Europe, often unwitnessed," Kim Murphy, assisting managing editor of The Los Angeles Times, was quoted as saying by The New York Times.
While The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times in the US published “more jarring” photos, The New York Times said it carried an “image that showed a Turkish police officer carrying the child but conceals his face”.
In Britain, the Guardian published an image of the toddler on its front page and so did The Sun, which recently drew ire for comparing migrants to "cockroaches". Faced with criticism for not carrying the most powerful photos, the BBC News later broadcast a report from the beach on which Aylan’s body washed up.
As in many recent cases, a renewed debate over refugees began online much before it found its way into the mainstream media. And innumerable posts on Aylan and "cheap" memes as tributes ensured the Kurdish toddler entered living rooms and his haunting images were imprinted on smartphone screens much before editors discussed in the newsroom whether to carry the photos or maybe which one to publish.
The healthy for-and-against debate online and the hashtag on “humanity washed up ashore” (#kiyiyavuraninsanlik) again proved the mainstream media, considered the fourth pillar of democracy, had to set the bar higher in view of the rise and rise of social media, a distant cousin that is faster and more democratic but, sometimes, less classy.
For Aylan, social media discussions shaped the good old public opinion, even if one identified it by the alias of a “trend”.
Questions such as whether Twitter should shape news sense or to what extent the media is reliable are part of another debate. But what's irrefutable is: The images of Aylan as well as those of two US journalists gunned down on live TV cannot be blacked out.
In Aylan's case, there was another side of his story, one that was humane in the face of an inhuman plight and so emotional that it jolted confused European leaders, who are sharply divided over how to tackle a burning crisis.
Aylan's photos said what was obvious and what was beyond the frames – like the images of growling dogs and scared eyes of Abu Ghraib, the “dust lady” of 9/11, Gujarat violence-hit Qutubuddin Ansari's tears and the white face of a child in a coffin after a terrorist attack on a Peshawar school.
Little Aylan's photos led to a much-needed public outcry, and irrespective of how European leaders reacted, the toddler wrote a big chapter in the continent's migrant crisis.
For his photos not only told the story of a dead child, they spoke volumes of how Europe's callous response and rule of lawlessness in West Asia have pushed thousands to the brink. There was no harm if people were shocked and disturbed by Aylan's images, or they shivered in shame and felt insecure – little Aylan deserved this much.