Should the media transmit gory/grisly images? (None here!)

By Caitlin Kelly

On Twitter, I found this powerful blog post, by an Australian blogger. She has a tough copyright demand, so you’ll have to visit her site.

Her argument? Seeing bloody and graphic images can be deeply upsetting to many viewers.

I agree.

Something soothing and lovely instead!
Something soothing and lovely instead!

But it’s a difficult balance for journalists and editors.

After Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, I tweeted my outrage constantly — at major news outlets like Reuters and The Economist. I loathed the details and images they used that I found prurient and titillating.

I was shouting at the moon, as no one with authority would likely read them and certainly not re-think their editorial decisions.

As someone who has been working in the media for 30 years, I have a mixture of feelings about this.

On one hand, I think people need to understand what a crazy/violent world we live in and address that. If we censor the worst atrocities, how can we raise true awareness and spur action to resolve them?

On the other…many of these images are gratuitous, prurient and deeply disturbing.

I argued with some random woman on Twitter about the wisdom of showing pictures of luggage and toys that fell from the sky with MH 17.

They “humanize” the victims, she said.

Bullshit, I said. We know perfectly well they were human!

And yet…without truthful images of what war and famine and terrorism inflicts, do we know the full story?

I also fear, very seriously, for the journalists and editors, (my husband is a career New York Times photographer and photo editor and many of our friends work in the industry), who process these images.

Those who spend a lot of time in and around physical and emotional violence can end up with a very real form of PTSD called secondary trauma.

I suffered it, briefly, after writing my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns, which steeped me for two years in stories of death, injury, suicide, fear and violence by and against women. I spoke to 104 men, women and teens, some of whom described tremendous horror, one of whom sent me a photo of the man she had shot, lying in her front yard.

I had nightmares, and off-loaded some of that mental darkness onto two professionals.

Today — a full decade after its publication — I have a very limited appetite for images of death, horror or gore. I don’t watch vampire or zombie shows and there an entire genres of film and books and videos I just won’t face.

Reality was quite enough, thanks!

The week of MH 17, we attended a small dinner party, with seven career journalists at the table. We all had decades of experience, had worked globally, had few illusions left about our world. We talked about this and could not come to any agreement about how much is too much.

We also agreed that it has had an effect (how could it not?) on our own souls and psyches. Some people become callous. cold, bitter and cynical. Some lose all perspective because such violence is “normal.” Others (rarely), leave the business or leave that sort of work — as Kelly McEevers, NPR’s Mideast correspondent did — burned out from too much of it.

Her husband, writer Nathan Deuel, wrote a book about what it was like to watch her go off and report, leaving him and their infant daughter to do so.

She did an hour-long radio documentary about her decision to leave; it’s here:

I have a lot of friends in this field who can push back. I wish I were one of them. Rather than argue with Anna, I crumbled. At that point in 2012 I was sleeping just a few hours a night. I had unexplained migraines. I was a bear to live with. So instead of yelling at her, I just sat down on the sidewalk and cried.

By the time you see media images, you — civilians, non-media folk — are only seeing the least-offensive/frightening/disgusting of it most of the time, no matter how rough.

We’ve sifted out the worst.

We’ve seen and heard the stuff of indelible and unforgettable nightmares.

What images should we show you — the public — and which do we withhold?

When and why?

What do you think?



33 thoughts on “Should the media transmit gory/grisly images? (None here!)

  1. i think that is must be an ongoing struggle to balance the need to tell the full story, (photos included), and to maintain a level of mindfulness with regard to the audience. there are images that i have never forgotten after only seeing them one time, their intensity so great. and not always in a good way.

    while i understand logically that sometimes the only way to make people believe and understand a situation is to show it like it is, i think this just tends to spread the collateral damage even further. and i am not a fan of gratuitous shots just for the sake of shock value and ratings/readership.

    i cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to cover, to shoot and to edit the stories that show the horrific side of humankind. it has to take a toll, not unlike being in a war oneself.

    1. We have a young friend whose sole work is taking photos of all the shootings and funerals in Chicago. I truly fear for his mental health — he had hoped to go to the Middle East to a war zone. He is already in one.

  2. Such a difficult question to answer since we have no idea what pictures are actually withheld. Awful and disturbing as they are, we must be given the facts and appropriate pictures to stir up the outrage or sorrow we should be feeling. We won’t react at all if we’re not confronted with the truth and while journalists can word-describe an event, a photograph can bring it to light.
    I suspect the answer is that the status quo must remain whereby newspapers and film editors must make the decision as to what is enough and what would be too much. I don’t envy them the choice of having to go through the whole amount in order to decide what’s best.
    xxx Hugs Galore xxx

  3. Dear Caitlin,
    I do agree it is difficult to choose whether to publish or not photographs of violence.
    On one side there is the need to tell the things as they are and on the other side the responsibility towards people coming across those images, people of all ages.

    Anyway, if I had to choose I would generally be very much careful in using photographs. Their power is enormous and people could avoid reading and “imagine”, which can be even worse. We know that images work at a subconscious level also and, in my opinion, in some cases that is just a continuation of violence. Who benefits from those images? Those who committed the crime and those who are killed certainly not. Journalism?
    This makes me think of the World Press Photo awards that in the latest years has been more and more focused on these kind of photos. Look at 2014 and if you travel back through years you will see and increase in those kind of pictures.
    It seems to me such a terrible choice. Who do we praise? The photographer for his courage? People killed? The high technical quality of shots?
    Professionalism in journalism is also being able to choose, using words and images that give the point about the cruelty of things without necessarily “killing” the reader too.
    Thank you for sharing,

      1. I had in my mind the story of Carter: I will never forget. I knew the first time few years ago at the “It’s difficult” exhibition by Alfredo Jaar

      2. It’s a powerful cautionary tale. I think that “watching” can be morally difficult-to-impossible. There are many kinds of journalism I could not do because of this.

  4. themodernidiot

    It’s the reality of the world we live in, but a reality people hide from. We act like it’s such an offense to have to see our world, just so we can deny it exists.

    We act so put out to see what’s actually happening, well what about the people who are actually there? What are those so offended by these images doing to help the people wading through bodies to get to work?

    Life sucks. All over. Stop hiding that fact, and maybe we’ll finally fix it.

      1. themodernidiot

        No. We are the people with the real power, but we never seem to exercise it. We’d rather just sit and complain 😉

      2. themodernidiot

        Oh, well, in Practice she wants. No no no, we can’t have people actually voting. That just won’t do.

  5. Of course I do not mean that we should hide facts, not at all. I’m questioning the fact that the increasing editorial choice of “shocking” through photographs can bring to a passive attitude more than to the courage to help.
    We are getting used to violent images in the media and I’m not sure this is really effective to raise awareness and committment among readers. And, finally, to work individually, day by day, for a better world. It’s even human, understandable, if we arrive to the point that we have to raise a white flag and give up the news as a whole. (the same happens with words but the impact is less invasive and we have many more elements there to make up a “picture”). This is my opinion and experience.

    1. Compassion fatigue is real. So is the feeling of being overwhelmed by photos of issues and people far from us (or not) whose misery is something sufficiently complex it’s not at all clear (to me) what the solutions might be…Boko Haram’s kidnaping of all those (unfound) Nigerian girls…? Photos of distraught MH 17 or MH370 relatives?

  6. To me there is no doubt; the editorial choice to publish gore is cynically intended to draw readership (‘advertising dollars’), buoyed by trend and the idea that, if Paper X doesn’t publish it, then Paper Y will and so get the market. A collision of social trends with technology that has made widespread high-quality photography available more than ever. It’s material that was not published a generation ago. I always put one of the key pivot points in the anti-war movement of the twentieth century down to the horrifying TV image of people running away from a Vietnam war napalm attack – I still remember seeing it, and I was a kid at the time. But it is tame by comparison with the style of image chosen today. Just today I saw photos in a well known magazine from that air crash that I would never have expected – or wanted to see, myself. I abandoned reading the article.

    We live in a new age of gladiatorial spectacle, provided – as in Roman times – at the expense of others.

    I wrote a book, some years ago, on the psychology of military heroism (I’m trying to get it republished now, though not much chance in this climate…) Anyhow, it became clear that in WWI especially, those exposed to horror on a routine basis became inured. But there was a cost, and as you point out, it didn’t surface often until later. ‘Neurasthenia’, they called it then. PTSD. Do we really want to re-expose professional journalists and photographers to that? Or populations of readers, who consume the stuff? Populations, furthermore, that have never been trained or taught how to cope with the trauma of it?

    Alas, it looks like that’s where the media trend is going. Sigh….

    1. Thank you — as always! — for adding a historical perspective to this. Social media has made this worse, certainly.

      At the dinner party, the other six people passed around an Ipad with a photo from Time that my husband told me not to look at. I could see others’ faces (tough old jouro’s all of them) and I chose not to look at it. My husband knows there’s some stuff I can’t look at.

      When I was emailed the photo of “the dead guy in the mud” (that I mention in my post, the man shot by a woman), I had Jose vet it first. “It’s just a dead guy in the mud,” he said. Then I wrote an essay about how de-sensitized (this, in 2002) we had both become as a result of our work. It’s frightening on every count.

  7. People who have died in a violent way, any way actually, are entitled to their privacy and dignity. That’s why I object to the photos. It seems to me a grotesque violation.

    1. Jan, I agree.

      The front page NYT photo of a MH 17 body under clear plastic sheeting offended me deeply. I wish someone would interview the family members of victims to hear their POV — for everyone who thinks this coverage honors their loved on, I imagine others are horrified by the intrusion.

  8. Great post. I think about these things a lot. I’m not out in the field, where I know the exposure to violence is even more visceral and immediate, but there are still things that cross my desk – arrest affidavits, crime scene photographs, raw scene video that shows bodies of accident victims, even the sounds of screaming over the police scanner – that have given me nightmares. There’s a lot that comes into the newsroom that doesn’t come out. Of course I have gotten desensitized to a lot of it, but occasionally I’ll still see something that really disturbs me intensely. That I then have to turn around and take all of this human suffering and misery and turn it into an easily consumable news product to be read and watched by people who are just looking to kill time during their workdays is easily my least favorite part of this job. I will not miss that when I leave this industry.

    Since I’ve been doing this job, I’ve always erred on the side of keeping the goriest media and details out of the work I produce, for a variety of reasons. Partly it’s because of my own sensibilities, which tend to be fairly sensitive and suggestible. (I also do not watch horror movies, and have to close my eyes at parts of movies that are particularly violent.) Partly it’s out of a sense of wanting to preserve the dignity of the dead and wounded. And then I also worry that, like you said, that publishing this information doesn’t really humanize the victims of violence as much as it desensitizes people to violence. What actually humanizes the victims of violence (and its perpetrators) are the details about them as human beings – their families, their personalities, their histories. At least, that’s been my experience with this.

    1. Thanks so much for weighing in — as someone who lives these decisions daily. In 2006, while at the NY Daily News, I and others were asked to listen to 911 calls from 9/11. We all wept. It was grotesque. I admire news journalism and I am highly competitive with my stories….but there are many stories I cannot and will not do. I have seen some really ugly behavior on the part of fellow journalists and it sickens me.

      And it isn’t just photos or audio. I read (!?) a WSJ sentence so graphic and powerful (which in some ways I admire for its skill) that is unforgettable. I wish it were!

      “There’s a lot that comes into the newsroom that doesn’t come out.”

      That says it so eloquently. I know F & F is not a space to talk about this, but I wish you’d blog it as well. I think more civilians need to hear from the other side of the camera/notebook about this stuff.

  9. I agree. I remember many years ago watching a news show and they had footage of a cow being shot. Whatever for?!? I don’t even recall the news story at this point. Gratuitous images to pimp a story has no place in true journalism. I trace it back to airing the Vietnam war into our living rooms during the dinner hour. We became desensitized to the horrors of war and human suffering after that.

    1. And yet…as some people have argued — without those images of VietNam, the war might have remained some very very distant abstraction, instead of something that horrified people so badly it finally ended.

  10. Yesterday I woke up to these headlines:
    “The Ebola Virus comes to America. Is your town next?”
    “Toledo Ohio’s water is toxic. Is your town next?”
    “Christians in Iraq have been killed and eliminated. Is your American town next?”
    “France riots against Jews. Is America next?”
    “Malaysian Airline down. Is Jet Blue next?”

    I can go on and on but you get the idea. When is news news? And when do they make it up? When will news come to my town? According to CNN, any second now.
    Thankfully, I can just turn off the TV and shut down my computer. Which is what I do.

    I found out about Viet Nam from Francis Ford Coppala’s film ‘Apocalypse Now’. That film, and only that film correctly showed the truth of what was going on in Viet Nam. I never believed Walter Cronkite for a micro second. Cronkite had his own personal, liberal-slanted agenda. He never told it ‘like it is’ IMHO.

    Images are powerful mind changes. Just ask Hamas, and how they hide their weapons in middle-class working neighborhoods and children playgrounds and schools and UN buildings. Then they show you the blown up bodies of children and get you to hate Israel and the Jews.
    Don’t fall for it.
    Change the channel.
    Listen to the words of Benjamin Netanyahu. He speaks the truth IMHO.

  11. I think it is the media’s responsibility to filter out what the public sees. Unfortunately now with social media this is not always possible. I see some horrific things on facebook (not necessarily war related) which I would really rather not see but you don’t always get the choice when you are scrolling down a page. There is a real danger of violence and horror becoming ‘normalised’ and of us viewers shutting down because we are just so used to seeing terrible things, rather than becoming incensed which is what should be happening. The ethics of this make for an interesting discussion certainly. I think this is what Susan Sontag discusses in ‘Regarding the pain of others’

    1. Thanks…I agree, Facebook is often even worse and I have de-friended some people. The worst habit I see in some of my pals (hate it) are photos of dogs or cats “on death row”!!!!! that we are all suddenly expected to adopt, within minutes, usually in a city or country 10000s of miles away. FFS.

  12. I have a group of friends who have worked together at the state forensics lab for many years. To sit and listen to some of their stories is horrific enough; I can’t imagine actually seeing what they see on a daily basis. Is there value in the media posting grisly images? As a former journalist, I think sometimes there is. Sometimes the words, however powerful, aren’t enough to convey the emotion of the situation. What I find alarming is the growing practice of using eyewitness photos and videos taken on camera phones as footage during newscasts. Who’s filtering those? The fact that the first reaction a bystander has is to pull out their phone and take a picture of a victim shows that we’re becoming a society desensitized to violence and horror.

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