Dealing with graphic content is a moral minefield for journalists

Posted by: Dr John Jewell

Even for a world unhappily accustomed to news reports of conflict, terrorism and disaster the past three months seem to be unprecedented in terms of the frequency of horrific events following in quick succession.

From the continuing tragedies in Syria ,  to the  kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, to the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 we moved on to the Israeli government’s assault on Gaza. This week the terrible accounts of the actions of Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq  have once again demonstrated that the maxim ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, cliché that it may be, is probably the defining truism applicable in an apparently never ending cycle of violence.

Our news media offers us graphic evidence of this inhumanity. The Mail Online invites us to click on to a video which shows a mass execution carried out by Isis in Iraq  The Independent gives us the opportunity to watch ‘disturbing video footage… purporting to show the moment a whole neighbourhood in the embattled Gaza region is flattened by Israeli air strikes in just an hour’. The New York Times leads on page one with a picture of a victim of the MH17 disaster. It shows a body, with bared legs, underneath a plastic sheet. On top of this sheet is a single red rose.

And then, yesterday, we saw, if the image is genuine, appalling evidence of how violence and hatred corrupts the young. Most of the British newspapers reproduced the tweet believed to have been sent by Australian terrorist Khaled Sharrouf, reputed  to be fighting in Syria. The tweet depicts a boy, thought to be Sharrouf’s son, holding aloft a severed head. Though the boy’s eyes are blacked out and we cannot see the severed head, the photograph is (to me at least) both shocking and chilling. The Mirror reported, ‘the image was posted on Twitter with the words: “That’s my boy!”

The obvious question is this: should such images appear in the mainstream media? This is something that the picture editors and news editors contemplate every single day and when we are prone to criticise the coverage we get it would be right to consider the constraints under which journalists operate. Roger Tooth, the Guardian’s head of photography wrote recently of images out of Gaza and the Ukraine: Conflict-weary picture editors have shed tears and wondered aloud if counselling might be needed as they have shifted through thousands of pictures provided by the photo agencies’ all-seeing lenses. 

It’s been argued that the use of more graphic material in mainstream media is at least partly due to the rise of social media  and it is true that as Julie Posetti argues, Journalists and traditional news publishers are no longer the primary information gatekeepers of public discourse; neither are they able to impose their professional publication standards and ethics on social media users and bloggers.’ But it is still the case that audiences rely on conventional media to make sense of world events and to provide analysis where social media cannot. In this sense, the responsibility of the traditional media is great. As Tooth writes, ‘It’s all out there on the internet or on your timeline. All I can do is try to help keep the Guardian’s coverage as humane and decent as possible.’

Let’s think in terms of images of war and terrorism more generally. Essentially, there are these arguments: that the brutality and horror of warfare must be conveyed. On the other hand, there is the view that images such as those described above are just too gruesome, too graphic for public consumption and they only provided images for other fanatics to replicate.

The death of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 and the way that was covered provoked this type of debate. Then we saw, on the front pages of pretty much all of the newspapers, close up pictures of a physically crushed man, bloodied and beaten, at the very end of his life. The Mirror showed a lifeless corpse with the headlines, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’

Responding to the fact that the BBC and ITV decided to run grainy footage of Gaddafi’s last moments, Igor Toronyi – Lalic wrote in the Telegraph: ‘ignore the fact that at the last, the death of Gaddafi, was deserved. Barbarity was still the result. The sort of barbarity that we mock our medieval ancestors for. Yet there it is: death, murder and suffering open to all at one scroll and click. And, judging by the prominence of the clips on sites around the world, we were lapping it up as much as any 14th-century peasant.’

For Mark Lawson the worry was of the risk of, ‘the development of a culture of death porn. For me, as a simple moral position, Gaddafi merits as much privacy in his final extremities as did his victims in the Lockerbie bombing a germane example from the past of a time when the media by common consent suppressed horrific images in the cause of taste and privacy.’

Jonathan Jones in the Guardian was of a different view: this was war as it should be seen by all – ‘for once, with the death of Gaddafi, we have seen the face of war, washed in blood, bathed in cruelty. The horrible and haunting pictures of his last moments and his public exhibition simply show us, for once, what the wars of our time and all times look like. If we don’t like what we see we must stop this foolish pretence that war, however “just”, can ever be anything but a brutal mess. If we were more properly conscious of what war really means we might have a different perspective on our nation’s involvement in them.

Whether or not a news organisation is right to use graphic material is, as illustrated above, a matter of opinion. But what this article has hopefully illustrated is that in certain cases the decisions to print or broadcast are taken with care and with a genuine desire to ‘do the right thing’. The mainstream media, if we can speak so generally, has its multitude of failings (many of them catalogued on this site and highlighted by myself) but let’s not forget that when dealing with upsetting and harrowing imagery, journalists do not exist in a vacuum, unencumbered by the moral uncertainties that we all face.

This article appeared in a slightly different form in The Conversation