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The Bloody Lens:
A Bibliographic Essay on Ethical Concerns Related to Shocking Images
of Violence and Tragedy
Submitted for consideration for presentation to the Visual
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication 2005 Convention
San Antonio, Texas
Carol B. Schwalbe
Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Arizona State University
P.O. Box 871305
Tempe, AZ 85287-1305
[log in to unmask]
The Bloody Lens:
A Bibliographic Essay on Ethical Concerns Related to Shocking Images
of Violence and Tragedy
Abstract (73 words)
For decades, scholars and journalists have discussed the ethics of
disseminating shocking images of violence and tragedy. The
proliferation of violent images in our 24/7 news-hungry society
raises ethics-related questions for photographers, editors, and
producers. This article reviews the literature on the ethics of
digital photo alteration (truth telling); decisions faced by
photographers, editors, and producers about images of violence and
tragedy; and codes of ethics that provide guidance about
disseminating grisly images.
For decades, scholars and journalists have discussed the ethics of
disseminating shocking images of violence and tragedy. The
proliferation of gruesome images—from warfare to terrorist attacks on
civilians—in our 24/7 news-hungry society raises ethics-related
questions for the photographers who produce the images and the
editors and producers who decide which ones to run.
In the last two years alone, the faces of dead Indonesian babies and
murdered Russian children, charred civilians and tortured prisoners
of war have flashed across television screens and appeared on
newspaper front pages and Web home pages. Editors and producers must
negotiate a fine line between informing viewers about the enormous
human toll of wars, bombings, terrorism, and tsunamis versus
protecting sensitive viewers from horrific images and thus possibly
shortchanging the human tragedies. Too much visual coverage can carry
the risk of sensationalism and offending people, while too little
coverage can oversimplify complex issues and fail to inform the
public about the magnitude of horrors. Questions of whether to give
viewers and readers what they want, what they will accept, or what
they need to know face photographers and editors on a regular basis.
During the current war in Iraq, for example, journalism professionals
have debated whether or not to run disturbing images of the
bullet-riddled bodies of Saddam Hussein's sons (Romano, 2003), the
charred bodies of four slain U.S. contractors hanging from a Fallujah
bridge (Clark, 2004; Crain, 2004; Perlmutter & Major, 2004), nude
Iraqi prisoners being tortured by American GIs at Abu Ghraib prison
(Hersh, 2004), and the beheading of U.S. contractor Nick Berg (Walt,
2004). Questions were even raised about shots that appeared
patriotic, such as the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue on April
9, 2003, by a seemingly large crowd of Baghdad citizens (Fahmy, 2004;
"Staged," 2004; Rampton & Stauber, 2003). Tami Silicio lost her job
with a U.S. contractor when she violated Pentagon restrictions by
photographing the flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers, which was
published in April 2004 by The Seattle Times and other media
(Bernton, 2004). The Los Angeles Times fired Brian Walski for using
Photoshop to combine elements of two photographs into a third image
Ethical concerns about violent images are important because
photographs help us remember the past. Sontag (2004) wrote that the
scrapbook of Western memory over the past 60 years is mainly visual.
Photographs haunt our collective memory, for they are harder to
ignore or spin or cover up than words are. After the My Lai massacre
in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird told Henry Kissinger
that he would like "to sweep it under the rug." Photographs, however,
provided evidence that could not be denied (Becker, 2004, p. A1).
More recently, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse had been known for months,
but it took photographs to bring the scandal to public prominence
Although scholars caution against "visual determinism," or the
concept that dramatic photographs affect everyone in a powerful and
similar way (Spratt, 2004, p. 2; Domke et al., 2002), some news
images can sway public opinion and even move governments to action
(Sharkey, 1993). News stories illustrated with photographs,
especially those featuring victimization, attract more reader
attention that articles without images (Zillmann, Knobloch, & Yu,
2001). Photographs can heavily influence news readers' short- and
long-term perceptions of social issues (Zillmann, Gibson, & Sargent,
1999). Shots of starving children were credited with pushing the
United States into Somalia in 1992 (Durniak, 1992). Less than a year
later, Paul Watson's Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a dead American
soldier being dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu was said
to have hastened U.S. withdrawal from Somalia (Elliott et al., 1993;
Sharkey, 1993; Wilkes, 1994).
As Hariman and Lucaites (2004) point out, "[D]eep conflicts are
inevitably emotional, stabbing at our beliefs and passions and
calling up powerful feelings; and perhaps more to the point, they are
not easily localized, put in their place, or otherwise controlled
precisely because they are structural problems of the society as a
whole" (p. 5). Complicating these difficult ethical decisions today
are digital manipulation and the ubiquitous digital camera, which is
changing the definition of "journalist."
This article reviews the scholarly and professional literature in
four areas of ethical concerns related to shocking images of violence
and tragedy: the ethics of digital photo alteration (truth telling),
decisions faced by photographers when shooting images of violence and
tragedy, decisions faced by editors and producers when disseminating
images of violence and tragedy, and codes of ethics that provide
guidance about disseminating grisly images
The ethics of digital photo alteration (truth telling)
Among the first works to delve into the ethics of digital photo
alteration were two books—Fred Ritchin's In Our Own Image: The Coming
Revolution in Photography (1990; reprinted 1999) and William
Mitchell's The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the
Post-Photographic Era (1992)—and an interview essay in the Journal of
Mass Media Ethics (Parker, 1988). Since then, several viewpoints have
emerged about the use of technology to digitally alter news
photographs. Some scholars and photojournalists argue that a
published image should look as close as possible to the original
without any digital alteration. Others, however, maintain that any
changes should be made only to the entire image, not to individual
parts (Kobré, 2004, pp. 331-332).
Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Elliott (formerly Lester), who write a
monthly ethics column for News Photographer magazine, espouse a third
view. They distinguish between doctoring images in order to fool
viewers versus normal professional manipulation in order to give
viewers the best, most accurate view. The latter techniques include
selecting a better camera angle and focal point, dodging and burning,
sizing, cropping, editing, and correcting the color balance
(September 2003, p. 12. See also Parker, 1988, p. 55, and Reaves,
1993). In some areas, such as color correction, conventions call for
adjusting skin tones to avoid green faces (Abrams, 1995). Altering
skin tones, however, can raise ethical concerns. A computer-retouched
photo-illustration on a Time cover showing O.J. Simpson with darker
skin than a non-manipulated image on Newsweek's cover stirred a
debate about race (Roberts & Webber, 1999, p. 7).
Ethical questions also arise "when manipulation is due to
deviousness, creates a false impression, or achieves some sort of
personal gain" (Elliott & Lester, August 2003, pp. 12-13). Areas of
ethical concern include altering the content of a photograph by
combining parts of several images to create a new composition,
re-creating or stage-managing events, and deceptively altering,
adding, or removing elements from a shot. Elliott and Lester (October
2003) maintain that cropping a photograph to remove irrelevant
elements outside the focal area is different from deceptively
removing elements that viewers would have noticed if they had been at
the scene (p. 12). Elliott and Lester (2000) point out that
manipulated pictures can distort reality or lead viewers to a false
conclusion (pp. 18-20). In their opinion, it is wrong to remove a
distracting post from a historical photograph because it needs to
remain authentic, yet it is acceptable to darken the sky behind the
Challenger explosion so viewers can see the catastrophe more clearly.
It is fine to fix a person's red eyes, as that is an artifact of the
picture-taking process, not what an observer would have seen. It is
acceptable to blur an anatomical feature that might be viewed as tasteless.
Mitchell (1992) uses four tests to assess the ethics of altered photographs:
1. Viewfinder test (Does the viewer see the same thing as the
photographer did, with some allowances for routine processing?)
2. Process test (Do standard processing techniques keep the image as
authentic as possible?)
3. Technical credibility test (Does shoddy execution indicate that
the photograph has been doctored?)
4. Obvious implausibility test (Does unrealistic content indicate the
image has been altered?)
Wheeler (2002) adds a fifth—the essence of the image—to help
determine the appropriate disclosure of manipulated photographs (pp. 171-79).
In 1999 Steele and Black analyzed thirty-three media ethics codes;
about half contained prohibitions against photo manipulation, but
that did not mean the issue had been settled. In 2004 Sontag called
the uncropped shot of a hooded prisoner standing on a box at Abu
Ghraib more shocking than the cropped version published in the
mainstream news media because of the American standing nearby,
nonchalantly checking his fingernails. News disseminators must
consider whether uncropped images like these are more truthful. Or
are they in poor taste and too politically charged?
Many newsrooms crop elements that might offend viewers. Most U.S.
newspapers cropped out the bloody human femur in Pablo Torres
Guerrero's wrenching image of the Madrid train bombing that killed
191 people and injured more than 1,400 in March 2004 (Day, 2004;
Irby, 2004). Time magazine covered the femur with type. Time, which
does not have a policy for dealing with body parts, considers taste
and respect for the wounded and dead on a case-by-case basis (Irby,
2004). A photo editor at the Washington Post, the only major U.S.
newspaper that published the uncropped image, felt that the bombing
was "so huge to the world that people needed to see its reality"
(Irby, 2004). Some overseas newspapers digitally removed the femur,
while others digitally altered its color or substituted stones
matching those between the rails. Other alternatives to publishing a
gory image include camouflage—blurring, using black bars, and adding
or removing editorial content.
The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) code of ethics
opposes digitally cleaning up an image or changing content by
removing even minor elements (Be careful, 2002, p. 2). News
Photographer, the NPPA trade magazine, editorialized against changing
images "to protect public sensibilities," declaring "An altered image
is a lie" (The terrible truth, 2004, p. 6). According to the
editorial, removing or disguising the femur not only sent the public
a false message but also made the victim anonymous and invisible.
To alert viewers to cropping or other alterations, Fosdick and Fahmy
(2003) recommended adding a small icon or thin rule around one or
more corners of the photograph—the graphic equivalent of quotation
marks for text. The photo and text editors of three leading
magazines, however, did not support the adoption of "photation
marks." When making decisions about photographs, these editors relied
on internalized standards rather than formal codes of ethics. Ritchin
proposed a similar notation—a "not a lens" icon—to identify
manipulated photographs (Abrams, 1995).
The angle from which a photograph or video is taken can deceive
viewers, as indicated by studies of media coverage of the toppling of
Saddam Hussein's statue on April 9, 2003. Although many U.S.
newspapers and Web sites featured the photographs (Schwalbe, Keith, &
Silcock, 2004), sources critical of the war (Cockburn, 2003;
Schechter, 2003) as well as mainstream professional publications
(Staged, 2004; Zibluk & Long, 2004) criticized the images because
their narrow perspective made it appear that masses of Iraqis were
hailing U.S. troops as liberators. Wider shots of the entire square,
however, in foreign newspapers (Fahmy, 2004) and on the Internet
(Cockburn, 2003) revealed only a few hundred people.
According to Newton (2001), the burden of visual truth for viewers is
to expect authenticity from the news media and to challenge
misleading reportage. Rodriguez and Geske (2004) determined that
college-age respondents generally found it more acceptable to
manipulate objects than to manipulate people in photographs. The
students did not object to the removal of distracting elements. Evans
(1989) noted that some photographers supported the removal of small,
distracting elements that were not relevant journalistically. Huang
(2000) found that adult respondents were more tolerant of altering
photo-illustrations and feature images than hard news photographs.
Reaves (1995) reported that newspaper editors as well had more
lenient attitudes toward manipulating photo-illustrations and feature
photos than news photos.
An Associated Press Managing Editors online poll asked both
journalists and newspaper readers how they would have presented five
controversial news photographs from 2004, such as Nick Berg just
before his beheading and a wounded American soldier on a stretcher.
Although more journalists than readers voted to put the images on the
front page, both groups "struggled to balance compassion and family
privacy with a broader need for information. They saw value in
unflinching descriptions of wartime brutality, but no one wanted to
become a tool of terrorist propaganda" (Pitts, 2005).
Decisions faced by photographers when shooting images of violence and tragedy
Some literature, including that by combat photographers, has examined
ethics-related issues that arise when shooting gory images. Since
codes of ethics are administered by news organizations—if indeed they
are administered at all—many ethical decisions fall to individual
photojournalists (Tomlinson, 1991, p. 6). During stressful,
deadline-driven situations, photographers must sometimes decide
between personal choice and professional responsibility (Kobré, 2004,
p. 300). Photojournalists have been praised for revealing grim
realities on one hand, yet blamed for providing disturbing images
that upset viewers or invade their privacy (Spratt, 2004, p. 1)
Some war photographers have developed their own ethical guidelines.
David Douglas Duncan, a former Marine who covered three wars, shot
combat only in black and white because he thought color would be a
distraction. Out of respect for the soldiers, he never showed corpses
or mutilated bodies (Howe, 2002, p. 22). Media commentators and
critics, however, claimed that Duncan's pro-soldier perspective
sanitized his war photography (Lester, 1991, p. 50). Pauline Lubens,
a San Jose Mercury News photographer, prefers to capture "the agony
on someone's face rather than the gaping wound in someone's stomach"
(Robertson, 2004, p. 48). Although there has always been a taboo
against showing the faces of dead GIs, it does not extend to the dead
and dying in poor nations, especially in Asia and Africa (Sontag,
2003, p. 70). Stepan (2000) argued that one-sided photojournalistic
coverage of famine and starving children in Biafra has helped shape
the Western perception of Africa as a "disaster continent" (p. 119),
even though many African nations are peaceful and stable. A study of
the newsworthiness of world events revealed an editorial bias toward
foreign news that is either deviant or imperative to U.S. business
interests or national security (Shoemaker et al., 1991).
Tasteful coverage of combat can hide horrible truths. As Kozloff
(1990) notes, "Outstanding moments of photographic imagery tend to be
elegiac in character, with a moral content embodied in the spectacle
of or the resistance to human loss" (p. 149). Perlmutter (1998),
however, contends that photojournalists "are aware of the potential
shock value of what falls into their viewfinder" and that "every
freelancer in a war zone is looking for the Pulitzer winner that will
establish his career" (p. 20). Sontag (2003) regarded shock as "a
leading stimulus of consumption and source of value" (p. 23).
Another conundrum photojournalists face is whether to remain an
observer and recorder or intervene to help the suffering. Should the
human urge to help come first, the journalism second? In Peter Howe's
(2002) book Shooting Under Fire: The World of the War Photographer,
combat photographer Nick Ut describes the dilemma he faced when
taking the terrifying picture of Vietnamese children fleeing from
their village after an accidental napalm attack by U.S. forces:
Should he take the photo or help the victims? He did both (p. 22).
Photojournalist Ron Haviv concludes that if intervention might mean
death, then the only thing to do is record the event so the public
will know about it and the victims will not have died in vain (Howe,
2002, p. 96). A picture of a drowned child or a fatal car accident
can warn others and perhaps prevent similar accidents. Tragic
pictures can also help survivors deal with their grief (Kobré, 2004, p. 311).
Not all journalists intervene, however, even if they can prevent a
tragedy. When a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in 1963 to protest
the South Vietnamese government, Peter Arnett of AP chose not to
intervene. "As a human being I wanted to; as a reporter I couldn't"
(Kobré, 2004, p. 314). Publications that ran Arnett's picture
received letters from readers angered by what they perceived as the
depiction of horror for its own sake.
War photography was once the domain of photojournalists; in today's
digital age, anyone can be a photographer (Sontag, 2004). Media
organizations can censor themselves, but it is difficult to censor
soldiers and civilians overseas. Despite the ease with which digital
photographs can be altered for political or commercial gain, the fact
that anyone can be a photographer means that the sheer number of
images produced can help carry the burden of truth (Dunleavy, 2004).
That raises the question of what ethical standards should be applied
to images taken by non-journalists.
Even though the widespread use of digital cameras and satellite
telephones has increased the number of war photographs from Iraq,
Marks (2003) writes that most hide the worst horror. When casualties
are shown, they are usually at a distance or "cleaned up" in a
hospital (p. 828). The London bureau chief of the Washington Post,
for example, does not "want to hide from the truth but we're
reluctant to use pictures of people with major wounds. We draw the
line at blood and guts" (p. 828). BBC guidelines for the Iraq War say
that pictures of death and injury "should not normally be close up
and should not linger too long" (p. 828).
Decisions faced by editors and producers when disseminating violence
Once the images are produced, editors and producers must weigh many
factors before deciding whether or not to run shocking images. These
factors include ethical considerations; individual, corporate, and
social values; and loyalties to stakeholders. Is it right—or even
responsible—for the media to protect the public from violent images?
Does culling images of death give viewers a skewed view of the world?
According to Bryan (1991), the media depicted the 1991 Gulf War as a
quick, surgically clean techno-invasion, "diminished in savagery by
both the frustratingly narrow restrictions placed by the U.S.
Department of Defense on journalists attempting to cover the way, and
by the very familiarity and comfort of the living rooms and bedrooms
from which we view it" (p. 16).
Media commentators and critics have written that the mainstream media
exploit grief to drive up profits and ratings. Television crews are
under pressure to bring back dramatic images. Sensational coverage,
however, can hurt the public by taking the place of substantive
stories on public policy issues. According to Sontag (2003),
"[M]ainstream media are not in the business of making people feel
queasy about the struggles for which they are being mobilized, much
less of disseminating propaganda against waging war" (p. 65).
Government and military censorship
Government censorship can prevent photojournalists from covering
battle scenes or releasing certain images to the public (Elliott &
Lester, November 2001). Some commentators worry that censorship, pool
coverage, and other forms of government control weaken the watchdog
function of the press and lead to an overly upbeat view of war.
Sontag (2003) wrote that portraying the vicious side of war would be
deemed unpatriotic (p. 94). "If governments had their way, war
photographers . . . would drum up support for soldiers' sacrifice"
(p. 48). On the other hand, too much exposure, such as rerunning
footage of the World Trade Center collapse on television, might fuel
the terrorists' "oxygen of publicity" (Bucks, 2004), while not
showing a hostage pleading for his life or being beheaded could
reduce that supply.
Government efforts to influence public opinion and suppress
dissension by controlling war images have a long history. During
World War I, which was the first one recorded by military
photographers, a soldier who took photographs could face execution by
a firing squad (Howe, 2002, p. 18). For the most part, censors
forbade the publication of photographs of dead bodies, including
soldiers killed in battle (Huppauf, 1997). The policy of not
picturing dead GIs continued until 1943, when officials decided that
such images might strengthen the resolve of the home front. The
censors made sure the dead or seriously injured could not be
identified. One of the first photographs published of dead GIs was
George Strock's image of three maggot-infested bodies on a New Guinea
beach. Although it shocked many readers, soldiers praised Life
magazine for having the courage to print an image that gave meaning
to their struggle (Moeller, 1989, p. 207).
The media broke new ground during the Vietnam War by showing pictures
sympathetic not only to injured and dead U.S. soldiers but also to
Vietnamese civilians. Images like the point-blank execution of a Viet
Cong suspect on a Saigon street helped fortify the outcry against
U.S. involvement in Vietnam. This was the last conflict where
photographers could independently record events. Since then, the
Pentagon has tried to control public opinion and prevent sympathy for
the enemy (Elliott & Lester, 2001). During the 1991 Gulf War,
censorship, news pools, and military escorts prevented
photojournalists from shooting the types of pictures that had helped
change U.S. public opinion about the Vietnam War. Those who worked
outside the pool system, like the Sygma photographers, captured the
non-choreographed, intimate moments of sorrow as well as triumph
(Bryan, 1991, p. 21).
By some accounts, photographers embedded with U.S. troops during the
Iraq War saw, for the most part, only what the Pentagon wanted them
to see (Elliott & Lester, September 2003). The restrictions prompted
some photojournalists (Boulat, 2004; Turnley, 2003) to cover the war
independently. But even that freedom did not mean the images the
photographers considered the most important reached news consumers.
"As an independent photographer," Alexandra Boulat (2004) wrote,
"there is little I can do about the way my pictures will be used
inside a magazine or a newspaper …. Often, the pictures function as
illustrations to an article, and the photograph will be published as
a confirmation of the article's message" (p. 8). To make sure an
important theme is not overlooked, Cheryl Diaz Meyer of the Dallas
Morning News gives her editors a wide selection of frames (Robertson, p. 48).
After September 11, 2001, police and government officials banned
photographs at Ground Zero in New York. David Turnley justified
hiding his camera and sneaking in "because 50 years from now, it's
important that people contemplate the decency that so many people
demonstrated in trying to do the right thing in a situation that was
difficult. I don't know how that can be communicated without images,
without words, without film" (Van Riper, 2002, p. 59). By bringing
this important story to the world, he and other photojournalists also
aided "in the collective and somber effort of rebuilding" (Van Riper,
2002, p. 59)
Tolerance of readers and viewers
Although many critics and scholars claim that news photography has
long been fixated on death, Fishman (2003) showed that during the
last two decades of the 20th century, print and later online
newspapers rarely showed corpses. Of 21 news professionals surveyed,
many restricted or controlled death photos to protect viewers from
painful, damaging reactions (p. 66). Nonetheless, the fine line
between images that move people and those that anger or offend them
(Kenney, 2001) has attracted attention in the literature on
photographs of violence and tragedy.
Decisions about portraying the cruel face of war and disasters are
not easy. Factors that come into play include newsworthiness,
context, dignity, distance, and audience. Although predicting public
reaction can be tricky, Irby (2004) emphasizes that "the audience
should always factor into the decision-making process, as it is the
purpose of a free press to inform citizens and to maximize
truth-telling through authentic reporting, while minimizing harm."
According to Elliott and Lester (November 2001), editors and
producers make poor choices when they base their decisions on special
interests, usually for patriotic or commercial reasons, rather than
on the public's right to know. Journalism professionals risk the ire
of readers and viewers when they run disturbing images but do not
fully inform their audiences about the realities of war because of
editorial restraints or commercial concerns.
Limitations of time or space and other factors can also prevent
newspapers and television stations from showing all the visual sides
of a complex story (Perlmutter, 1998, p. 4). Teri Hayt, an assistant
managing editor at the Arizona Daily Star, expressed concern about
being too evenhanded in the visual coverage of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "[I]t doesn't matter what images run,
someone will be offended." She worried "that we are being so
sensitive to both sides that we are not covering the news story of
the day" (Kornmiller, 2002, p. 76).
Some argue that no one should be protected from the atrocities of
war. Vietnam photographer Larry Burrows wants his work "to show the
interested and shock the uninterested people into realizing and
facing the horrors of war" (Sweeney, 2002, p. 3). During the Iraq
War, journalists from many news organizations felt frustrated because
only a fraction of the unspeakable horrors they witnessed was shown
to the world—dead civilians, appalling scenes in Iraqi hospitals,
"friendly fire" incidents. Their stories were featured in a CBC
documentary that features footage the U.S. military would not allow
on the air in the United States and photographs that American
newspapers would not print (Coxe, 2003).
Should editors and news producers err on the side of caution?
According to Randy Rasmussen (2002), assistant director of
photography at The Oregonian, knowing that readers will react
negatively does not dissuade the paper from running violent
photographs if they provide "a vital newsworthy perspective" (p. 70).
Elliott and Lester (2000) agree that reader or viewer outrage should
not be the deciding factor about running controversial photographs.
To make sure the firestorm is worth the risk, they write, "A
controversial picture must illustrate a generalized problem or
demonstrate official action which viewers are not likely to
appreciate without a visual message" (p. 22). The news organization
also needs to explain the content and/or context of the controversial
event in words as well as pictures. "It's our job to show
uncomfortable truths that readers need to know" (p. 22). At The
Bakersfield Californian a grisly photo of charred bodies hanging from
a bridge in Iraq drew fewer reader complaints and cancelled
subscriptions than a shot of dead dogs and cats in 55-gallon drums
(Strupp, 2004, p. 13).
Near the beginning of the Gulf War, editors put a politically charged
photograph on a Newsweek cover (February 4, 1991) to help steel the
United States for possibly prolonged conflict (Lule, 1995). The
battered face of an American POW greeted readers of an issue that
headlined stories on brutality, torture, and terror at the hands of
Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Newsweek defended its disturbing cover shot
against charges of sensationalism: "Our cover decision was based on
our judgment of what the brutal treatment of POWs revealed about the
nature of Saddam Hussein. . . . The POW pictures revealed the Iraqi
dictator's complete misreading of how those images would affect
international opinion" (A grim photo, 1991, 9).
On the other hand, writers point out that sanitizing gruesome
situations can give readers a false impression of their community as
well as the world. After the September 11 attacks, good taste was
cited as the reason for not showing dead bodies. The New York Daily
News, however, ran a picture of a severed hand lying in the street
near the collapsed World Trade Center towers in a late edition and
briefly on its website. In response to reader protests, the editors
responded, "This isn't high school. It's the real world and we
shouldn't shield our readers from it" (Van Riper, 2002, p. 57).
Most newspapers, however, did not run a front-page photograph of
people falling to their deaths from the World Trade Center towers
because a viewer or reader might recognize a friend or relative. By
publishing such an emotionally charged picture, Kenney (2001) points
out, readers could direct their anger at the newspaper instead of at
the event itself. Brian Storm, who was the MSNBC.com multimedia
editor at the time, reasoned that the picture was an "essential part
of the story," but he let Web viewers choose whether or not they
wanted to see it (Kobré, 2004, p. 319).
According to Elliott and Lester (2001), even after September 11, most
people who write letters to the editor do not want to see gruesome
images. As a result of this self-censorship, most U.S. newspapers and
television stations do not show the full range of pictures and video
available from international sources. Photojournalist and
videographer Mark Loundy opposes this kind of selective reporting:
A people who decide to make war even in full knowledge of its
horrors have fairly decided that war is necessary. That's why it is
critical for an impartial news media to fairly portray the real human
costs of combat. The electorate has to be trusted to make informed
decisions. Few governments have the courage to do this. A people who
ignorantly allow themselves to be led into war in the name of
flag-waving, jingoistic, cartoon ideal have no right to claim that
their cause is just. It is our duty to be horrified (Elliott &
Lester, 2001, p. 12).
One subset of the audience is children. Marks (2003) describes the
Guardian newsroom discussion about whether or not to publish a
powerful but disturbing picture of a dead, bloodied Iraqi baby killed
during a U.S. air assault. Even though the image spoke to the human
cost of war, a major reason for not running it big on the front page
was that it would upset children who might accidentally see it (p.
828). That rationale guided the Boston Globe as well (Larkin, 2002, p. 77).
Not all violent pictures help readers or society. As Kenney (2001)
notes, "They [photographs] can help, but they can also hurt. They can
change lives, for better or worse. And they can often reveal more
than a reader wants to, or should, see" (p. 18). A steady diet of
grisly images can make people callused, apathetic, or fearful
(Sontag, 2003, p. 100). Mueller (1999) cites evidence that a
profusion of tragic images can leave the public feeling shell-shocked
and apathetic toward the suffering, yet a single news photograph of a
disturbing event "does not necessarily disturb or harm viewers, and
in fact may mitigate feelings of fear of sadness" (Spratt, 2004, p. 18).
Issues of privacy
Besides considerations of good taste, another reason not to run
grisly images is to protect the privacy of victims and their families
who may be wounded emotionally. Almost two decades ago, Padgett
(1985-86) chastised both print and broadcast news photographers for
"exploiting grief for a profit" in order to sell "the news at
anyone's expense" (p. 50). Whether photographing reactions to a
suicide bombing or a grieving family at a funeral, responsible
journalists "are willing to think in terms of preserving both public
dignity and individual privacy," he wrote (p. 54). Padgett argued
that publishing photographs of starving Ethiopians, a grieving widow
in Denver, or horror-stricken children in Lebanon showed disregard
for "human dignity and the right to private grief of the individual
involved" (p. 54) and that basing decisions merely on whether the
grief was public or private seemed inadequate (p. 52).
In certain cases, Kennedy (2002) counters, the news value of images
outweighs the emotional distress to family and friends. He justifies
the publication of the gut-wrenching photographs and video of the
execution of American journalist Daniel Pearl on a Boston weekly's
website, which was condemned by the ethics committee of the Society
of Professional Journalists (Ethics Committee, 2002), because they
were news in its most basic sense: They showed what happened.
Although critics felt that newsworthiness was superseded by the pain
inflicted on Pearl's family, Kennedy (2002) argues that "the
importance of bearing witness to evil overrides personal
considerations" (p. 81). "We turn away from such evil at our peril,"
he cautions (p. 80). In addition, the execution images were not any
more grotesque than horrifying photographs of the Holocaust or the
Vietnam War, some of which won Pulitzer Prizes.
Photographing war casualties in hospitals raises other privacy
issues. Bioethicists Jerome Singh and Tania DePellegrin (2003) assert
that doctors who allow patients to be filmed without consent are
shirking "their legal and ethical duty to protect their patients" (p.
774). Even in wartime, they contend, patients' expectations of
confidentiality, privacy, dignity, and autonomy should not be
suspended. If doctors want to reveal human rights atrocities, this
should be done in a respectful yet unobtrusive way. Singh and
DePellegrin write that doctors should be wary of governments or media
that want to further their goals by using civilian casualties as
propaganda tools—something Jabbour (2004, p. 115) maintains the U.S.
government did by videotaping Saddam Hussein's medical examination by
a U.S. Army doctor. But Asad Raja (2003), a Pakistani surgeon, asks
why individual rights of confidentiality and privacy should be more
sacred than the larger community issues of justice and human rights
during war, especially when millions of people could be in danger.
"Ethically it is equally important to try to stop or prevent such
catastrophe as it is to treat victims of war with respect" (p. 1215).
Concerns of different media platforms
The literature on images of violence and tragedy also indicates that
technological factors and differences across media platforms affect
editors' and producers' decisions about images of tragedy and
violence. The instant dissemination over the Internet of digital
photographs such as those from the Abu Ghraib prison circumvents the
traditional "food chains" of communication imposed by the government
and carried out by mainstream media (Dunleavy, 2004). Similarly,
photos of the coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq were first
disseminated on Web sites such as The Drudge Report before they were
published in The Seattle Times and other mainstream media outlets
(Despite ban, 2004, p. 6). According to Elliott and Lester (2001), to
be fully informed, citizens sometimes have to turn to Web sites that
disseminate news without government permission yet "ethically fulfill
a moral duty to present all the news when the mainstream media
outlets will not. That is not only good journalism, but good
patriotism as well" (p. 12).
Some observers maintain that newspapers should never publish photos
of victims of natural disasters because these shots do not convey any
additional information that cannot be expressed in words and may mask
the magnitude of devastation by focusing on just a few victims
(Finucane, 2005). Others note that the old guideline of not running
images of "recognizable bodies," especially close to home, appears to
be shifting at papers like the New York Times, which showed a person
plunging from the World Trade Center on September 11, as well as dead
tsunami babies and charred remains hanging from a bridge in Iraq
(Bauder, 2005). Other observers, however, think the mainstream U.S.
media have become more conservative over the last 30 years in their
handling of shocking images (Robertson, 2005, p. 50).
Although television tends to shy away from graphic footage, CNN
showed victims of the tsunami as the death toll climbed. It is easier
for an offended viewer to switch channels than for a newspapers
reader to drop a subscription. In addition, television advertisers
might not want their commercials airing after graphic footage. Many
violent images that do not make it to the front page or the evening
news end up on the Internet. The rationale is that websites can post
warnings. Television stations also recognize the need for warnings,
especially during for the day and early evening.
Codes of ethics that provide guidance about disseminating grisly images
Few scholars have considered how much guidance news media codes of
ethics provide for photographers who shoot images of horror or
conflict and for editors and producers who decide what to do with
those images. Since one code of ethics cannot anticipate every
situation (Lester, 1991, p. 167), some argue that guidelines should
be ambiguous, with the journalist held accountable. Kenney (2001)
advises against setting specific guidelines for the use of tragic
pictures because "decisions such as these do not fit into neat
ethical packages; no two tragedies are the same. The best advice is
to think carefully about the significance of the event, consider your
own conscience and remain sensitive to your responsibility to the
community" (p. 18). Schwartz (2003) suggests a range of possible
• Publish photographs only the way the camera sees the subject (all
photojournalists would use the same equipment)
• Publish photographs only the way someone present sees the subject
• Allow photojournalists to follow professional guidelines
Others say codes should be specific. Wheeler (2002) recommends
establishing concrete rules if news "photography's credibility is to
endure" (p. xvii).
According to Harris (1991), "Codes have failed to solve any problems"
(p. 2). Instead, he recommends developing protocols for dealing with
ethical issues "by assigning the line of command and decision-making
as well as by stipulating the discussion group for the different
types of sensitive issues that may be raised by digital manipulation
of photographs" (p. 2). Bob Steele (1991) of the Poynter Institute
describes a protocol as "a formula for creating formal standards" or
"a blueprint for the 'process' of creating guidelines" (p. 14).
Individuals with different roles and perspectives in a news
organization use the protocol as a catalyst to spark further
discussion. A protocol does not provide an all-purpose solution but
rather is one element in the process of collaborating to make good
ethical decisions. Wheeler (2002) recommends that individual
publications tailor "unambiguous protocols" that "meet their
implications of authenticity," then share them with the public
(columns, notes, responses to readers' letters, and so forth) and, in
turn, invite readers to attend forums and write letters or guest
columns (p. 207).
With regard to photographs of capital punishment, Shipman (1995)
examined two sets of ethical guidelines to see whether viewers and
readers could learn what they needed to know without seeing video or
still photographs of an execution. Both the Associated Press Managing
Editors (APME) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)
guidelines at the time recommended that news judgments be informed by
compassion, the consequences of publication, and the public's need to
know (p. 106). Shipman concluded that the press could inform the
public, maximize compassion, and minimize harm by not showing images
Discussions about the dissemination of grisly news images will likely
grow louder in the years ahead. Productive areas of research include
the interplay of pictures across media platforms as well as their
impact on innocent stakeholders, such as children and vulnerable
cultures. More newsrooms and professional organizations may need to
address the treatment of shocking images and develop ethics codes to
help visual communicators determine where to draw the line. Such
guidelines can provide a framework for ongoing discussions that leave
the agency and accountability of journalists in place yet give the
audience a choice and context with which to view shocking images. The
key, says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter
Institute, is to have "a healthy process for deciding which photos,
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