Woolwich: The rights and wrongs of graphic imagery

Posted by Dr John Jewell

It’s been a week of violent and distressing imagery in our media. A week where we’ve seen, on the front pages of newspapers and on television screens, the immediate after-math of a horrific murder in Woolwich.

It’s been  a week, too, where have seen, on the front page of the Sun, graphic close up pictures of a new-born baby still with placenta and umbilical cord attached, being removed from a sewage pipe.

And as I write, Mark Bridger has been convicted of the murder of April Jones. ITV News has quickly posted a web page that you can visit to hear the 999 call her mother made on finding out that she was missing.

With reference to the Wooolwich murder, it should be noted that the media editors decided to broadcast and print such images after much consideration and soul searching. In the Guardian, Chris Elliot wrote that it was right to use the picture and the video, as both were crucial to an understanding of the event. It’s not the first time shocking images have been run on the front page.  ITN broadcast footage of one of the attackers speaking directly to a mobile phone camera saying it was ‘editorially justified’.  The managing director of the Sun told the Press Gazette that choosing to release the video was “a very difficult decision but was swayed by the “huge public interest” in the story. “The editor had close discussions with his backbench team about the treatment of the video and the stills in the print edition,” Only Sky TV demurred. John McAndrew, executive editor at Sky News, said: “We assessed the video at a senior editorial level – several times. Given the detail we had already learned about the attack, we took the decision not to run the video as we believed it would have been unnecessarily distressing.”

So: should these images have reached the public domain? Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror and now Professor of journalism acknowledged the horror of it all but in the end was unequivocal: Editors cannot edit in order to ensure they protect us from the feeble-minded. It would make the job impossible and, taken to its logical conclusions, nothing would ever get published…. Newspaper editors, in trying to do their job – in company with television news editors – were confronted with a bizarre and barbarous act. They had to react as they did.

Many did not agree with Greenslade, mainly on the grounds that such publicity gave terrorists the oxygen they craved. Sunder Katwala wrote in the New Statesman: There will be a broader appetite across London to make sure that it is not only the killers who grab the media megaphone. How might the voice of millions who quietly reject the offer of hatred and division make sure that we get a hearing too?

The general public was equally as divided. A survey of Media Blog readers found 56 per cent of respondents said they believed the papers were wrong to run the images on their front pages, while 36 per cent said they believed the papers were in the right.

A further question we can ask is: how does such exposure to such graphic imagery impact on society? Well, research into the effects of media violence (across all media forms) is inconclusive. That said, George Gerbner’s research into violence and terror in the mass media, published in 1988, is still persuasive.

As Media Smart point out, Gerbner’s research found that those who watch greater amounts of television are more likely to:

·    overestimate their risk of being victimized by crime
·    believe their neighbourhoods are unsafe
·    believe “fear of crime is a very serious personal problem”
·    assume the crime rate is increasing, even when it is not

For our own health and happiness perhaps we should turn off the news now and again. Certainly, in the words of novelist Rolf Dobelii, news is bad for us and giving it up would make us happier. In his words, it’s toxic to our bodies, it makes us passive and it increases cognitive errors.

But I would argue that we need the news to make sense of the world. The images we see may disgust us and cause us to despair about man’s inhumanity – but they help us to comprehend what is going on. We must see the publication and broadcast of the terrible images of Woolwich in that context.

The final words are madeleine Bunting’s. Writing is reaction to the views of Dobelli her words seem particularly apposite at this moment in time:

….retreating from such engagement with tragedy into a safe cocoon of personal equanimity is cutting yourself off from the stuff of life. If we retreat into fortresses of ignorance, what understanding do we have left of our shared life as humanity? At its root there is a responsibility to know and understand the world and age you live in. That is at the root of democracy: that we all have a responsibility to make decisions about how our society is ordered. How is democracy possible if people don’t want to know?