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!



The Boston Bombings: Social Media Ethics

Social media has changed the way we communicate, especially during breaking news situations. Information not only travels fast, but also far and wide. This was definitely the case during the 2013 bombings in Boston. Social media became a place many of us could gather to learn information, communicate with loved ones, or follow the developing situation. Unfortunately, a lot of mis-information was disseminated. Whenever a situation is developing this is bound to happen – even to mainstream, credible journalists (as was the case with CNN) – but social media can amplify it ten fold.

Besides following the situation on social media, many of us turn to it to help those suffering. In this article, Augie Ray, a social media expert, weighs in on the ethical implications of becoming involved in the conversation.

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 5.50.26 PMOne example, an NBC station posted a picture of a bombing victim being visited by First Lady Michelle Obama in the hospital. The post asked people to “like” it in support of the boy. Obviously, it generated a lot of engagement. But was it ethical? Ray says “no” and I agree. How tacky?!

No matter what connection this station had with this victim, if any connection at all, what was their intention? If it was to boost their social media engagement for that day, or month, or in general get more exposure — shame on them! If it really was to show support for this victim, they could have definitely worded the post differently. If there was a personal connection with the boy they should have said it. I’m sure, in general, this post would have received a lot of engagement, considering it’s timeliness to the tragedy and the subject matter, despite their poor call-to-action.

I always think when it comes to honoring victims of a tragedy, less is more. This is especially true when it comes to companies weighing in on social media. At it’s core, social media is still about those personal connections, not marketing.

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 5.56.54 PMA perfect example of another company who did not take the “less is more” theory into consideration: Ford. The American automaker decided to weigh in by thanking first responders. Sounds nice enough, right? WRONG! Check out the screenshot (right) of the image Ford posted on social media. My thoughts are: great messaging, horrible imagery.

Why be promotional during a tragedy? A simple “thank you” would have gone a long way with fans. If Ford wanted to use imagery they could have used something related to Boston or the tragedy itself (nothing graphic of course, I’m thinking more of a ribbon), not showcase their own models. Again, how tacky!?

Social media is a great way to communicate with fans on any topic, but when it comes to weighing in on national tragedies (or even local ones) businesses must show restraint. Think before you post. If you want to thank first responders, do it! But in a way that doesn’t have a marketing message. It’s not necessary. It’s also important to show restraint and not post unrelated content during these types of situations. That content could also be deemed insensitive. Having a social media manager monitoring trending topics and content development can help your brand stay current and provide appropriate content at any given time.



When “Friending” Someone Crosses a Line

facebook_friend_requestThis week’s social media ethics class kicked off with a “hot button” topic: As journalists when is it appropriate to “friend” someone on Facebook for the purpose of news gathering or story telling? The example discussed had to do with a reporter contacting the friend of a murder suspect on Facebook. Should the reporter identify themselves as a reporter in the friend request or just send the friend request and see what happens?

As I pondered this question, I thought back to my days in a newsroom (just three short years ago) and how much has changed. I remember a time when we were not allowed to pull photos off of Facebook to use on air or not allowed to utilize information from Facebook as part of the news gathering process. Now, even though I don’t still work in a newsroom, a lot of my friends do and they, like many of us, use social media to get and deliver news. One of my friends who I recently saw on a story told me she had to immediately post an update to Facebook before she got back to the newsroom otherwise the news director would come down on her. Oh, how times have changed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.

So, when thinking about this week’s topic, I considered when is “friending” someone crossing a line? I believe a reporter should always identify themselves as such. I mean if a reporter goes on an interview in person they should identify themselves. If they are conducting a phone interview they should identify themselves. Why would social media be different? It shouldn’t be. The ethical thing as a journalist is to always identify yourself.

computerwomanIf you’re still not convinced, think about how you are making this decision. What is your motivation? Are you trying to get to the truth, help more people from being harmed, informing the public of a situation? Or are you trying to win brownie points with your boss? If it’s the latter, you probably have some sole searching to do as a journalist because you also have to consider the effects of your decision. If you contact this person without identifying yourself, could it do more harm down the road? An immediate reaction from your boss may not outweigh the long-term of effects of your decision.

As a journalist you should work to not only report the facts, but do so in an ethical way. This is true for traditional journalism and the ever-changing digital/social world. Be ethical and be a great journalist. That’s simple enough, right?!?