Using horrifying, brutal photographs in the media is shocking – so when are editors justified in using them? Senior lecturer at Rhodes University and veteran journalist Robert Brand answers in a published by The Media magazine.
When Grocott’s Mail, a Grahamstown-based community newspaper, published a graphic picture of a bloodied cable thief beaten to within an inch of his life by a vigilante township mob, several readers complained. Editor Steven Lang defended his decision to publish the photograph: “We did not take the decision lightly, because we are aware that such photos can be disturbing. Taking readers’ sensitivities into account, we published the least gruesome of the two pictures available to us and we took care to make it quite small and printed it on an inside page to give it less prominence.”
The photograph, Lang argued, alerted people to the reality of crime in a way text could never do: “We consider it our duty to inform readers about what happens here in Grahamstown.”
News organisations frequently have to make difficult decisions on how to use pictures or footage depicting brutality or violence. One of my former editors had a rule of thumb: never put a picture on the front page that you wouldn’t like digesting with your breakfast. But is it that easy? Newspapers have, as Lang argued, a duty to inform readers about the realities of life around them; those realities are often disturbing. The responsibility to tell the truth has to be weighed against the possibility – or probability – that some readers may be offended.
Journalists like to justify the publication of disturbing photographs by arguing that they may serve as a deterrent – preventing, or at least reducing, similar incidents in future; or that they may become agents of social change by raising public consciousness about pressing issues such as crime. But is that the case?
As the ethicist Carl Hausman argued in his book, Crisis of Conscience: Perspectives on Journalism Ethics: “News media have, for years, run graphic photos of automobile accidents under the pretext that such photos would somehow let motorists know what awaits them should they become careless behind the wheel. But people continue to have auto accidents, and there is no evidence that conclusively demonstrates the deterrent effect of newspaper photos.”
The South African Press Code, though recognising that this is a difficult issue, offers only a vague guide: “Due care and responsibility shall be exercised by the press with regard to the presentation of brutality, violence and atrocities.” How, then, should editors deal with decisions about graphic images?
It helps to think through the decision before making it, says Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute: “A decision of this nature demands that newsroom leaders pay attention to their guiding principles and apply a sound, thoughtful process. Bring a number of voices into the conversation, including contrarians. Surface at least three alternatives and ideally many more for what you will ultimately decide. And – very importantly – be transparent with your reader or viewers about why and how you made your decision. Reveal the values that drive your decision and reveal the nature of the process so that the public understands how seriously you took this matter and better understands the significance of the issue.”
The key question is whether the photograph constitutes news. Does its journalistic value lie simply in the shock it produces, or does it tell readers something they need to know and didn’t know before seeing the image? Would publication of the image serve the public interest? In other words, would the public derive a meaningful benefit from publication of the image, or does it merely appeal to a baser instinct?
Also, editors should consider carefully how the image is used. In colour? Large or small? On the front page, where children or others may see it without choosing to do so? Is there enough context to help readers understand the significance and relevance of the image? What are the alternatives? Is there a less disturbing photograph that could be used, or is there another way of telling the story without causing offence?
Third, as Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute suggests, editors should forewarn readers if they use disturbing images, giving them some ability to choose what and how much they see. That may mean using small black and white images on the front page but including larger colour images inside, or using less offensive pictures in the newspaper while publishing on the web.
Lastly, editors should think about how they would justify their decision to readers. And it is better to do that before publication than after receiving complaints.
This story was first published in The Media magazine.