The Case of The Little Boy Henry

Mix of commotion and audience tests facts and photos from news coverage

The public learned that the Rio de Janeiro police were investigating the death of a 4-year-old boy, Henry Borel, one month ago.

The child arrived dead at a hospital in the early hours of March 8. His mother, Monique Medeiros, and her boyfriend, city councilor Jairo Souza Santos, known as Dr. Jairinho (no party), took him there.

In the dispute over the case, newspapers and magazines have published images of the boy taken just before his death and shared reports of alleged assaults by the councilman involving other children. At the height of the story so far, they reported the couple's arrest last week for suspicion of killing the child and disrupting investigations.

Folha entered later than the competition in the case (Globo in front) and, if it did not stray from the tone given to the coverage, it also did not bring exclusive information on the subject.

But an image showing the mother carrying the boy's body, published on the website on Monday (12) and in print the following day, bothered readers.

"The information that the boy had left the house dead could have been given, as it was by other major newspapers in the country, without the publication of a grotesque photo, exposing the boy's corpse for sensational reasons. If Folha wanted to dismantle the defense's thesis, why not publish the blurred photo on his face? The issue is not the reader's sensitivity, but the child's dignity," said one reader.

In the discussion triggered by Folha's decision, two points stood out: if there is a journalistic interest to justify the photo's publication and if the act would affect the child's dignity.

Vinicius Mota, Folha's editorial secretary, says that the photo has journalistic relevance because it is important evidence in investigating a possible murder of a child. "That is why it was published on Folha's digital and printed platforms," he says.

According to this thesis, the photo would help dismantle the defense version that the boy was removed alive from the apartment. This is because experts have shown a probable time of the boy's death, and the images of the elevator, which show 4h09min on March 8, proving that he had been dead for some time.

Concerning the image, it is less horrible or vexatious for what it actually shows—the boy in her mother's arms—and more because we know what it reports.

In a way, the photo fulfilled a role of materializing something that, for many, is incomprehensible: the possibility of a mother killing her own child or accepting his or her death. The photo is not allowed because, deep down, the crime is not understood.

But there are also very reasonable arguments to contradict publication.

Experts advise against the use of photos of children in situations of vulnerability, especially in times of the Internet, when the photo can be decontextualized and the image overexploited by the massive use and without control of other people or media. Some of them understand that image rights continue even after death.

If there is a journalistic interest, the recommendation is that newspapers and TVs not show the child's face, blurring the photo, for example, without ever resorting to the use of the black stripe, which harkens back to stereotypes linked to crime and present for a long time in coverage journalism involving poor and black children and youth.

If the image were blurred and accompanied by a caption explaining the context, what would be lost in terms of journalistic interest?

Not much, especially for a regular person. For them, the proof that the boy is dead is not related to the image of the boy himself, who appears to be sleeping, but to the time indicated by the image of the elevator and the expert's proof about the moment of death.

What is curious is that Folha itself has a solution for cases like this.

The Editorial Handbook says that videos and photos that involve content with violent or shocking scenes and that are of journalistic interest must be preceded by an alert - which has been done before.

However, although the title of the article announced the photo, the warning on the website that serves to prevent the reader from seeing the content without wanting it was only provided a little later, probably due to the discomfort initially caused.

As for the printed matter, the reader had no choice: he was confronted with the image on Tuesday (13) without the possibility of any kind of notice as to its content. Was it needed?

The fact that competing newspapers chose not to publish the photo (or to publish it with some treatment) reaffirms the existence of sensitive aspects around the issue.

The Henry case has many shock elements, which can help to understand, even, the reactions recorded in the face of other cases. It is worth remembering that Lucas, 8, Alexandre, 10, and Fernando, 11, disappeared in late December in the Baixada Fluminense. It's a story whose outcome is not known until today. Probably because they do not fit among the "beautiful children" mentioned, without quotes, in an analysis published by Folha itself.

In this mixture of commotion, indignation, and fight for the audience, the risk of misrepresentations, prejudgments, and sensationalism defies facts and photos of the news coverage, which needs to prove that it has matured.

Flavia Lima: A reporter specializing in economics, she graduated in social sciences from USP and in law from Mackenzie. She has been the ombudsman for Folha since May 2019.

Translated by Kiratiana Freelon