A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words, But is that Always a Good Thing?

Our society is too often faced with gruesome situations. Whether intentional or not, many of us may find ourselves looking at graphic images. Why do we do this? I’m sure there are a lot of psychological reasons that I’m probably not qualified to answer, but I know for myself it may be to learn more about a developing situation, it may be to better connect with the victims in some way, or it may be by pure accident.Despite news agencies’ disclaimers about graphic content, it’s easy to walk in during the middle of a television report or click on a link unknowingly.

So, what are the ethical implications of using graphic images? This question came up a lot after the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon. Several graphic images were published by news agencies in the immediate moments and following hours/days after the tragedy.

On one hand, I understand news organizations are trying to report the news, no matter how graphic/tragic. They are trying to be authentic. They are trying to allow their audience to understand what is really happening. On the other hand, however, can this be done without using a graphic image? We all know people are drawn to images. Sometimes the most horrifying images are the ones that stay with us the longest, yet I think to some extent this exploits the victims (specifically when thinking about the Boston Bombing victims). A close-up photo of a victim who lost his leg in the bombing really provided me with no more information about the tragedy than a wide shot of the aftermath did. I still knew it was a tragedy. I still understood it was a horrific scene.

Even though situations like the Boston Bombings happen in public spaces, shouldn’t we get consent from these victims before publishing their images? And even if their faces are blurred (which often times does not happen, at least immediately), are we exposing others to images they’d rather not see? My answer to both questions is “yes.” Granted asking someone who has just been the victim of a bombing for consent is beyond inappropriate, news agencies need to consider those victims before considering their audience. You could be exposing their health condition to millions on social media before their loved ones are even informed.

In my opinion, you can depict a tragedy and report the facts without showing a graphic image. It was even done during the 9/11 Attacks. While many images from that day are disturbing, most news agencies stopped showing footage of the planes actually hitting the buildings, people jumping from the buildings, or showing the moment the towers collapsed. We all knew what happened. We didn’t need to see it over and over again. The same goes for the Boston Bombings. We understood what happened there, we knew people were severely hurt, we didn’t need to see close-up images of a victims.

Publishing these images on social media also raising ethical concerns when thinking about children. How can you prevent them from seeing such graphic images? The truth is: we can’t. This is where I think news agencies need to consider some restraint. While an image can say more about a situation than an article can depict, if the image is disturbing and may cause more harm than good, what does that accomplish? More than likely, a controversy, which takes away from the actual situation.

A picture may be worth 1,000 words or in our social media world 1,000 retweets, we all need to some restraint when it comes to publishing content. The goal should be to inform not sensationalize.

Do you agree with me? Or am I being too sensitive to graphic images? All opinions are welcome!



4 thoughts on “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words, But is that Always a Good Thing?

  1. I completely agree. Thankfully, I have never been involved in such a traumatic and horrifying event. However, I imagine if I was, I would want to put the terror behind me and move on with my life. I am not sure how one can do so when every year on the anniversary of the event, graphic and disturbing images are re-released in an attempt to remember and honor the victims. Is that the best way to remember and honor? I don’t think so.

    • You’re exactly right, Lesley. I worked in a newsroom near Virginia Tech when the tragic mass shooting occurred there in 2007. After our initial coverage of the shooting and shooter, we decided not to show anymore images from that day or of him. It was not helping our community heal and it really served no purpose. Instead, we chose to show images of remembrance or that honored the victims. I think it makes a difference. You can’t ignore the news or tough anniversaries, but you can put the victims before anything else.

  2. Laura,

    Great post! I don’t think you’re being too sensitive, there is a time and place for graphic images and I don’t feel that social media is either.

    Especially the statement: “A close-up photo of a victim who lost his leg in the bombing really provided me with no more information about the tragedy than a wide shot of the aftermath did. I still knew it was a tragedy. I still understood it was a horrific scene.”

    There was no need to use gore on social media to “humanize” the crisis. It was already human. Also, just because something adds to a story does not mean it should be done. Interviewing children immediately after Sandy Hook added a new layer, there’s no doubt about that. Was it necessary, no. Was it appropriate, absolutely not. Sometimes the best thing to do as a reporter, photographer, editor and so forth is to ask if you are doing more harm than good. In a crisis, if the answer is even “maybe,” you should take a different path.

    • I totally agree, Casey. I think many journalists today forget to listen. It’s not just about rushing into the craziness of a situation and getting the first soundbite. It could be better to stand back, take a deep breath, and listen to what is going on. That may sound far-fetched, but I think sometimes the best soundbites or the best stories come from sources you might not expect. Asking yourself a few questions before taking action is always a smart move, whether you’re a journalist covering breaking news or just dealing with an everyday situation.

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