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Will the haunting image of an injured Syrian boy make a difference?

Airstrikes are a constant in Aleppo, Syria. But this week, global attention was captured by a haunting snapshot of one strike’s aftermath: a 5-year-old boy bloodied, dust covered and dazed. Such images have a history of going viral. But do they make an impact? Hari Sreenivasan asks Susan Moeller, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, and the New York Times’ Anne Barnard.

*An editor's note: the 1972 napalm airstrike in Vietnam that led to the iconic photo of a naked, burned young girl running down a road that is mentioned in this conversation was conducted by the air force of South Vietnam, not the United States.

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    It's hard not to be moved by images like that, but some pictures capture the world's attention more than others.

    We begin with an image that emerged last night from the frantic attempts to rescue people caught in the aftermath of air strikes. And again, another warning: some images in this story may disturb some viewers.


    Airstrikes are Aleppo's terrible routine. This one hit an apartment a building in the city's rebel-held area. Amateur video captured the frantic scramble to save lives amid horror.

    Then, a boy, pulled from the rubble, sits in an ambulance. He's dazed, bloodied, covered in dust. He wipes his face. His name: Omran Daqneesh. Age five. He survived without major injuries. So did his parents and three young siblings.

    Almost immediately, his image swept across social media worldwide, making Omran the latest symbol of heartbreak in the now-five year old conflict.

    But do such images spark action? If so, when? And how?

    Last year, as the refugee crisis swelled, one photo came to embody the tragedy. A drowned, three-year-old Syrian boy, pictured lying face down on a Turkish beach. It galvanized European leaders to review how they take in refugees and asylum-seekers.

    Other instances had less impact. In 2012, a documentary about Ugandan war-lord Joseph Kony went viral. It detailed the brutal tactics of his "Lord's Resistance Army," and the group's use of child soldiers. With the hashtags "Kony 2012" and "Stop Kony," it sparked global calls for his arrest. But four years later, Kony reportedly remains at large.

    And in April 2014, the Islamist group Boko Haram seized more than 270 girls from their school in northeast Nigeria. It led to the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign, repeated and circulated by prominent figures like first lady Michelle Obama.

    But this week, new video from Boko Haram surfaced showing dozens of the girls still in captivity, more than two years later.


    We take a closer look at the power of these images with Anne Barnard, "The New York Times" Beirut bureau chief, and Susan Moeller, she is a professor in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. She's also author of "Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death."

    Anne, I want to start with you. Every day on social media, there are more graphic, more violent pictures of little children than this. What is it about this image of the little Omran that connected?

  • ANNE BARNARD, The New York Times:

    Well, you know, speaking for myself, I see pictures that are literally gruesome beyond belief, that are hard to process mentally, and they are painful and compelling in one way. But this picture resonated in some ways because it's easier to connect to, it's a child in distress. So many of the — it's almost ineffortable to explain why but some of the gestures he made could easily remind you of a child you've known. Some of the — you know, his clothing, he was wearing a shirt with a Nickelodeon character on it.

    I think it's like with Alan Kurdi, who's body was — he was dead but his body was intact and it reminded people, you know, of a child sleeping on a beach. And I think in a way that's more shareable in a social media age than a really gruesome picture of death.


    Susan, why did this picture pop? Why did it get around the world in 20 seconds?

    SUSAN MOELLER, International Center for Media and the Public Agenda: I think one of the reasons is because the child is looking at us. But with a blank stare, where often we see on the news and we see in relief aid agency comment that, you know, help this child, and the child is looking at us, and it almost seems like the child is asking us to do something.

    And Omran was also that same pleading character.


    So, Anne, what impacts do these images have the potential to yield?


    Well, you know, that's a mixed bag. We can certainly think of examples in history like the famous picture of the girl burned by napalm by the U.S. military in Vietnam, that arguably changed public opinion and maybe moved policy ultimately.

    I think, on the other hand, many images go viral or touch people for a moment and then people move on.

    So, I think, certainly, among Syrians on all sides of the conflict, there is an increasing mix of anger that comes up when people express sympathy about an image like this because it's, like, well, really? You only just notice now that this is happening after five years? And it happened enough times without anything changing that people's expectations are really low.


    Susan, is it a potential for a government policy shift or people moved on a certain level?


    As Anne suggests that normally government policy doesn't shift with images. There may be rhetoric, there may be a press conference held, there maybe sympathy expressed, but you don't typically get change. What you do get is attention, and with enough attention, then you may get reaction that has an effect.


    Anne, are people motivated to take action? Are there cases where it might not be a government policy shift but individuals mobilize to such an extent that there is impactful change?


    Well, I certainly have had many people ask me, how can I help people like this? What organizations are doing work that can help civilians caught in this conflict?

    Other advocacy groups are jumping on this to say, well, this is — enough is enough, it's time to take more robust action to stop these air strikes by the Russians and the Syrian government. Others are, you know, saying, well, there is not an easy answer. Some people don't find this a reason to change U.S. policy.

    So, it depends on the person. Some reactions are political, some are more humanitarian, but I do think a lot of people felt it like a punch in the gut, even I did after all this time covering the conflict.


    Susan, what are people left to do about it? Is writing a check the answer? I mean, there is a sense of helplessness when you see this image, too.


    Yes, I think Omran has become, you know, the current poster child for Syria for this moment in time, just like Alan Kurdi did a year ago, and we've had other small children do in years' past.

    And I think a poster child does help us reach into our wallets, reach into our pockets, and give. I wrote a book called "Compassion Fatigue", and in that, I suggested that one of the reasons why people sometimes say enough is when they feel helpless, is when they feel like they can't make a difference. And I think, being able to figure out how to make a difference can be something that a photograph like Omran can do. In other words, identifying an aid agency.

    Alan Kurdi, for example, in the 24 hours after that photograph appeared, just one refugee agency received almost a quarter million dollars. So, we can say that help is given that wouldn't have been given otherwise.


    Anne, is there a correlation between things that we can do at home, say a Confederate flag issue or an LGBT issue that people get fired up about versus things overseas that might require the action of different governments and armies and tanks to move into places?


    Well, I do think people find it a bit opaque how they can affect foreign policy, especially nowadays in the era of just wars that are going on behind the scenes and with drones.

    And I do think, however, that, you know, now that there is a more active protest movement going on in the United States, anything can happen. But again the issues are very complex and multi-sided. You know, people remember that the war in Iraq was a huge failure and they're wary of the Middle East in general, they don't know much about it.

    And I also think there is an element that we've seen, there is a fear of Muslims and an element of racism and there is perhaps a conflation of innocent Muslim civilians with a fear of terrorism that is an obstacle to empathy for many people.

    And so, pictures like this hopefully, whatever your political stripe remind you that we're talking about just ordinary human beings.


    Anne Barnard of "The New York Times" joining us from Beirut, Susan Moeller of the University of Maryland — thanks for being here.


    Thank you.

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