A Graphic Reminder

By Carl Hausman

Here’s an ethics quiz. You’re on deadline and you have to make a decision instantly.

You are editor of a newspaper, and have a photo taken seconds after a bomb exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.   From a journalistic point of view, it tells the story brilliantly: In the foreground, a stunned runner attempts to get up, bewildered.  In the background, sprawled on blood-smeared pavement, is a man whose leg has been blown apart.

There’s no question it’s great journalism, but is running it great ethics? What do you do?

a. Run it as it stands.

b.Use it but stick it on an inside page, perhaps with a warning on the page-one story that the photo is graphic and disturbing.

c. Alter it by using PhotoShop to disguise the gaping wound.

d. Don’t use it at all.

Each avenue has en ethical fork.  Running it without alteration  serves an ethical good by providing unvarnished truth to the public, giving your readers an informative, unvarnished view of what’s happening.  The counter-argument is that there are many among your readership who will be horrified by such images.  Your paper is seen by all sorts of people, of all sensibilities, including children. Moreover, the counter-argument goes, we need no graphic reminders that having a bomb explode near one’s legs produces terrible injuries.  We don’t routinely take closeups of all sorts of horrible events, so showing grisly photos is needless and exploitative.

Using in on an inside page ameliorates, to an extent, the problem detailed above.  There are various ways of accomplishing this in different media.  Some broadcasters covering the bombing, for example, warned that what upcoming footage would be disturbing. The Atlantic ran on its website a photo of a man in a wheelchair clearly showing his leg blown away with scraps of bone embedded in the wound.  Viewers were required to to click on a warning page before viewing the photo.

But some critics would contend — particularly in the case of linear broadcasts viewed live — that such an approach is more eyewash than public service, as it is unlikely that people are really going to shield their eyes or jerk their children’s heads away from the screen.

Modern image-editing software can easily obfuscate the more graphic sections of a photo depicting carnage.  On the plus side, the overall reality — the larger picture — can be shown while the image is rendered with some sensitivity. Such was the controversy the argument used by the New York Daily News when altering the leg of the victim to look essentially normal.  But some ethical principles — including codes of ethics for news photographers — hold that it is wrong to manipulate a photo to change its content.

There is sound logic to that non-consequentialist approach.  If photos are routinely altered, the viewer loses perspective on reality, and the potential for deceit is obvious.  However, the opposite argument can be quite convincing when you acknowledge that any form of photography involves some sort of manipulation of the image — even something as basic as how close you stand to the subject or how much you zoom in.

Would ethics be better served by passing on the photo? An ethical good is clearly served by not confronting readers and viewers with a gruesome image.  As to the argument that the photo reflects reality, let me restate that there are many gruesome realities we do not routinely show — mangled bodies after auto accidents, burn victims after fires, close-ups of soldiers dead on the battlefield.  But the counter-argument is also compelling, holding events such as the Boston Massacre Bombings are clearly of dire public importance, and the public needs to be informed in a straightforward manner.

The take-away from this decision is that there is no “neutral.”  Both showing and not showing produce some sort of result.

Franklin Roosevelt confronted such a bifurcated problem in World War II. In the early years of the war, he took the standpoint that it would be wrong to show pictures of American war dead and ordered them censored.

But in later years, concerned that American support for the war effort might be flagging from exhaustion, he ordered that shots of dead soldiers and Marines be released to the press, hoping to rekindle outrage that stoked the massive materiel machine at home.

Remember, at the beginning of this commentary I warned you this was a quiz.  What would you do, and why?  If you want to see the photo I’ve alluded to, both in original and altered form, see the New York Times website:


Please enter your choice and defense of your action in the comment box below.

Author: admin

Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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