The footage left Kho with an old newsroom dilemma: Should they be published?
For one thing, the photos — taken by veteran reporter Lynn Sweet, who was at the parade during the attack — were clearly newsworthy: graphic evidence of a mass shooting in the Sun’s backyard. -Times. But Kho also knew that publishing them could upset the victims’ families or offend readers who aren’t used to seeing gruesome images in a mainstream publication, or being considered exploitative.
The Sun-Times ultimately published only one of Sweet’s photos on its website; it shows a victim covered with a blanket, except for one hand, with blood pouring from the body on the steps of a square. The newspaper waited until the families of the victims were notified of their deaths and placed the photo behind a screen that warned viewers before they clicked: “This image is graphic and disturbing. … Please consider the potential for trauma and exercise caution and self-care in deciding whether or not to see it. Kho decided not to publish the photo in the print newspaper so readers wouldn’t stumble upon it.
“I felt like [the photo] told the story in a way that is hard to grasp in other ways,” she told The Washington Post. “I will never forget this photo. I wondered if it would make people see the reality of what had happened.
Even with its caveats and caveats, the Sun-Times’ decision to publish the photo was unusual. Graphic images of victims of violent crime are rarely published or broadcast by major news outlets in the United States; few will show blood or a victim’s face. But amid an outbreak of mass shootings, some journalists say traditional notions of restraint amount to an evasion of journalists’ responsibility to portray reality.
“We cannot clean up these murders”, tweeted Nancy Barnes, NPR’s senior vice president for news, after 19 children and two adults were killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas in May. “That in itself is an editorial decision.”
“Show the bodies,” Dean of Journalism David Boardman and Acting Dean of Medicine Amy Goldberg at Temple University urged in a Philadelphia Inquirer column last month. “Expose – in the newspapers, on television, on the Internet – a photograph or three that can, finally, help the American public understand exactly what happens when a weapon designed for modern warfare is dropped on innocent people and unarmed. Like a 10 year old in school.
Even in an age when cellphone cameras are ubiquitous, photos such as Sweet’s are not usually available to the press after a mass shooting. Press photographers often only arrive after the police have locked down the scene of the attack. Security cameras and police crime scene photos provide a record of the gory aftermath, but authorities often withhold these images from the public for long periods of time, reducing their media value.
Even when reporters get footage of mass shootings, they tend to withhold the most disturbing details. After an attacker killed 60 people and injured more than 400 at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas in 2017 – the deadliest mass shooting in US history – the Las Vegas Review -Journal primarily highlighted images of grieving survivors and police, not blood and bodies. And when the Austin American-Statesman’s website released surveillance footage of the Uvalde, Texas massacre this week, an on-screen note said “sound of children’s screams has been removed.” .
“As a general rule, we avoid posting graphically violent images,” said Leroy Chapman Jr., editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We do this out of respect for victims of violence and out of respect for our readers.” In rare cases, when the newspaper breaks with this tradition, it warns readers in large bold letters before scrolling something graphic.
Daily decisions about which photos to publish “are a moving target,” said David Ake, director of photography for The Associated Press, one of the world’s largest news photo distributors. “One day we might [distribute] something we wouldn’t do another day. There are no super hard and fast rules.
News agencies wrestled with questions about publishing violent imagery as early as the Civil War, when photos of the dead at the Battle of Antietam both shocked and fascinated audiences. But modern media also knows the power of a horrifying image.
Jet magazine’s photos of the mutilated body of a 14-year-old black boy, Emmett Till, helped energize the civil rights movement in the 1950s. (Till’s mother explicitly solicited the photos.) Death photos and trauma galvanized public opposition to the Vietnam War. Photos of a Syrian child who died on a beach in Greece and a girl who died trying to cross the Rio Grande with her father have drawn international attention to the plight of migrants. Video of George Floyd’s murder has led to global protests against police brutality, and widely published footage of Russian atrocities in Ukraine has sparked global condemnation.
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Editors should avoid creating “a sadistic image culture” that desensitizes readers and viewers, exploits victims and re-traumatizes survivors, said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a think tank specializing in media coverage of conflict and tragedy. Often other types of reports can be more effective, he said. He suggested journalists ask themselves, “Is blood the only way to shake the public conscience?”
In fact, it is impossible for a journalist to know what impact a disturbing image will have on the public. Would showing the devastating effects of an assault weapon on a ninth grader’s body change the gun ownership debate or just push people away? Could the publication of such photos even inspire new attacks?
Decisions often depend on the nature of the victims. Many US news outlets ran photos of the public assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the weekend. But most crime victims are not public figures; they are almost always individuals known only to a small circle of people, raising significant privacy expectations for a news organization. Alarmed by the possibility of photos of the 2012 Sandy Hook murders being released against the wishes of the victims’ family members, the state of Connecticut passed a law sealing all official photos and documents of homicide victims.
Reaction from Sun-Times readers to Sweet’s photo last week was generally muted, according to Kho. A few criticized the paper for its “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality, she said. But others were more supportive. One wrote “‘Thank you for being brave'” to show the reality of what happened, Kho said.
The Sun-Times was not the only outlet to publish a graphic image of the July 4 shooting, which left seven people dead and more than 30 injured. Journalist Irv Leavitt published a photo in his Substack column last week showing an older man on the ground, shot with a massive head injury, as first responders frantically worked around him.
“I believe posting this photo may be a sin,” Leavitt wrote. “But the greatest sin is the crime it depicts. And standing there while that crime is being played out is a sin too.