How Graphic Should Scenes, Images Be?

Media Ethics Tested on All Fronts

We’re back to that existential question of whether it’s ethical to show gory scenes of human “collateral damage” in conflict zones and mass shootings and if one should zoom in on people’s misery.

Whether it’s Ukraine, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Tigray, Myanmar, China or the U.S., who died and made us God?

Do we become activists if we focus too much on an issue and revert to the safe ground of “he said/she said?”

In war journalism, we don’t get used to horror, headlined the French La Voix du Nord news website on witnessing and combating disinformation.

The paper reported on a Hauts-de-France press club meeting featuring three journalists who explained the coverage of the Ukraine conflict in French regional press columns and how war remained a leap into the unknown, but that psychologically it was something else.

The aim is to inform, to be sincere, while respecting the limits each puts on him/herself faced with the horrors witnessed by people. Sometimes the accounts are too hard and shouldn’t be shared in full, was the argument.

“I sometimes tell myself, ‘that, I won’t publish,’” said journalist Éric Dussart.

The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi did a back story in March on “how journalists decide which images from Ukraine are too awful to publish.”

Screen shot of “How journalists decide which images from Ukraine are too awful to publish”

The particular coverage in question was when a Russian mortar strike killed and mortally wounded civilians trying to flee.

A New York Times photographer approached from behind a nearby building and aimed her camera.

Like many war images, Lynsey Addario’s photo of the dead and dying was never guaranteed to be published. Newsrooms have for decades been cautious when it comes to displaying such graphic images, weighing the journalistic benefits of chronicling the horror against the distress it might cause readers and the victims’ families.

If reporters at legacy media, online news outlets or even citizen journalists don’t document the horrors, will the story ever be told? And how much of it should, or can, be told?

Farhi: But, as their colleagues around the world have done with many other disturbing images from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Times’s photo editors decided that, in this case, exposing the war’s brutality outweighed decorum. Addario’s photo led the Times’s website Sunday, and was splashed across the top of the front page of the print newspaper on Monday, spanning five of its six columns.

Last month I wrote about how many Western media failed to accurately and ethically cover the targeted murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli police.

The double tragedy is when journalists have to cover the death — in this case, assassination — of one of their own.

Media worldwide relied on footage and still pictures shot by Palestinian journalists and eyewitnesses at the scene, including images of Abu Akleh lying face down after being killed, and later of a man carrying her listless bloodied body away.

Screen shot of Shireen Abu Akleh’s listless body being carried away after Israeli police killed her

Adding insult to injury was coverage of her funeral during which Israeli troops viciously attacked her pallbearers and falsely claimed they were the victims of stone throwers, which witnesses and video footage refuted.

So how many reporters and editors lap up the Israeli official version of events and what verbs, adjectives and nouns do they employ to characterize such actions?

It’s Journalism 101 that’s tripped up Western reporters and editors whose linguistic contortions in covering the funeral have infuriated professional journalists and others dedicated to accuracy and media ethics.

Elsewhere, The Associated Press asked if journalists and grieving communities can coexist in tragedy following the horrific massacre of 19 children and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, Texas.

The sensitivity that most journalists try to bring to such assignments can be undermined by those who stick cameras in the faces of people crying, or ask a grieving parent how it feels. One parent who lost a child in (the Sandy Hook elementary school in) Newtown (Connecticut 10 years ago) saw someone outside her home with a camera peering into a window, said Monsignor Robert Weiss of the town’s St. Rose of Lima Parish.

In general, journalists do a poor job explaining what they do and a poor job putting themselves in the shoes of the people they are interviewing, many on the worst day of their lives, said Joy Mayer, a former journalism professor.

Kelly McBride, an expert on journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, advises news organizations to better prepare when assigned to these stories. Most interviews on the street indicate this work hasn’t been done; people in shock and trauma, she said, shouldn’t have to make an on-the-spot decision about dealing with a reporter.

Screen shot of Esmeralda Bravo holding a photo of her granddaughter, Nevaeh, one of the Robb Elementary School shooting victims, during a prayer vigil in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25, 2022. (AP)

On the flip side, former U.S. homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson opined in the Washington Post that it was time to show the real horror of mass shootings, in pictures.

“I lack the moral standing to tell a parent to accept and approve, for the greater good, the public display of photos of his or her dead child. Only they can judge the additional weight that doing so would place on them, at a time when they are already struggling with unimaginable grief. Nor do I suggest the release of any images in particular. But something graphic is required to awaken the public to the real horror of these repeated tragedies,” he argued.

Johnson said images have the capacity to shock the conscience into action, galvanize a population, and alter the course of history.

Along those lines, retired photographer Nick Ut wrote in the Washington Post that a single photo can change the world.

The proof: the iconic picture he shot of a burned naked Vietnamese girl and other children running after a U.S. napalm bombing of suspected Viet Cong positions.

I was inspired by my brother’s belief that photography can serve the cause of social justice, but I didn’t know if one photo could have the power he suggested. Today, many credit my photo “Napalm Girl” for hastening an end to the Vietnam War. What I know for sure is that it depicts the absolute horrors of war — defined by a young girl running naked amid destruction and death.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics published a useful manual on dealing with journalists’ role in covering people who are suffering.

In her “Why Should I Tell You: A Guide to Less-Extractive Reporting,” Natalie Yahr wrote:

“With this guide, I aim to help journalists navigate the ethical dilemmas they encounter as they interview people who have experienced harm. While there are numerous practical guides on such interviewing, especially on trauma journalism, I have yet to find a guide that explores the deeper ethical questions of what conditions, if any, make such journalism morally justifiable and not purely extractive or voyeuristic.”

The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism published a style guide last year to help reporters, editors and producers working on tight deadlines make the right news choices, language usage and ethics in reporting on the impact of trauma on individuals, families and communities.

The Dart Center Style Guide is a living document, designed to be regularly expanded and updated to reflect evolving best practices, innovations in news coverage and growing scientific understanding. It is also a gateway to additional resources for journalists seeking to explore trauma journalism in greater depth. Entries link to the Dart Center’s extensive online library of tip sheets, backgrounders and journalist-to-journalist guidance, and as well as other authoritative resources.

Last month Dart Centre Europe published excellent tips on how to visually report on survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) .

When you’re reporting on CRSV, the visual choices you make — whether in filmed footage or in photographs — are vitally important. Particularly now, in the digital age, images have an afterlife long beyond that of the story you’re working on. It is crucial that survivors fully understand how they’ll be presented visually and what the implications are.

It said images are shared easily in the digital age, on different devices and across platforms, meaning that survivors can be haunted by them even if they live in remote communities and for years to come.

These are some of the key questions it said journalists should consider very carefully:

Is there strong justification for identifying survivors, or is it safer to start with anonymity?

Have they (survivors) given their meaningful consent to be photographed or filmed? Do they understand the reach of social media that may be seen in their communities?

Is there anything in the image that could inadvertently reveal their identities?

How can I involve them in image making so that they are comfortable with the final products?

And the basic ethics check: would I be happy for myself or a family member to be filmed or photographed this way?

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Magda Abu-Fadil

Magda Abu-Fadil is a veteran foreign correspondent/editor of international news organizations, former academic, media trainer, consultant, speaker and blogger.