Horrifying pictures from the recent earthquake in Haiti and a disturbing video of a fatal Olympic luge crash have renewed an age-old debate: Should news organizations publish graphic images, or err on the side of caution and withhold them?
How do photo editors and broadcast producers make such decisions? And what should aspiring journalists know about making such calls?
Kenneth Irby has been there. As a former photo editor at Newsday and the founder of the Poynter Institute's photojournalism program he's often had to make tough calls about which pictures went to press.
What makes such choices difficult, he says, is that there's rarely a clear-cut right-or-wrong answer.
But he does offer three guiding principles for making such decisions:
1. Maximize truth-telling: "This is what journalists do, document reality, report what you see to your audience," Irby says. "You are the eyes of the world and people are depending on you to report what you see." In other words, evaluate the news value of the pictures or videos in question.
2. Act independently: Make a decision based on your own guidelines, free from any pressures from outside influences.
3. Minimize harm: "Understand that some of the things we publish will have a negative impact on some individual. There are situations where people can be harmed by what they see, when they see death, when they see pain and trauma. That comes with the territory," he says.
Questions of Taste, Proportion and Context
Issues of taste also come into it, but "different publications will make different decisions based on their journalistic values, their audience and their organization's mission," Irby says in a phone interview. "The New York Times will make a different call than the New York Post or some other paper."
Proportion and context are also important. In Haiti, for example, there were many pictures of dead bodies published in the immediate aftermath of the quake.
"The question becomes, how many dead bodies do you show, and in what proportion do you show those as the news evolves?" Irby says. "If you're still showing nothing but pictures of dead bodies in the third or fourth day of your coverage then the audience may have the right to complain."
Readers often complain that graphic photos, if nothing else, violate the privacy of the person being photographed. But the real picture is often more complicated, Irby says.
For instance, during his time at Newsday in the 1990s, Irby was evaluating pictures from the Bosnian genocide. One photograph showed a woman standing over a tiny open casket bearing a child's body, but her anguished face stared directly into the camera.
"I didn't quite understand what I saw seeing," Irby recalls. "Then I read the caption from the photographer. It turned out the mother had been pleading with him to take the picture. Many times photographers are invited in to a situation because the people there have an interest in having their stories told."
The Internet has complicated matters. Graphic images and videos, even those withheld by the mainstream media, often make their way onto blogs and file-sharing sites.
"When al Jazeera posts the video of Daniel Pearl being beheaded it's a story and you can't ignore it," Irby says. "On the other hand, you can't make the same kind of decision they did. You're forced to ask, do I link to this? Do I use it in any way? Those are new decisions that journalists have to face because of the Internet."
A Picture of a Dying Marine
A case from last fall illustrates well the sometimes agonizing considerations news organizations must factor in when faced with such a decision. The Associated Press in September distributed a photo of a dying U.S. Marine in Afghanistan. The photo, part of a series of pictures, was released along with a story that bore the headline, "The Death of One Marine in Afghanistan."
The decision immediately drew fire. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called AP's move "appalling," and in a letter to AP president Thomas Curley, Gates noted that the photo was released over the objection of the Marine's grieving father. Newspapers that subscribed to the AP seemed evenly divided about whether to publish it.
The AP said the decision was made only after extensive deliberations, and that an AP reporter met with the Marine's parents to show them the pictures before they were released.
"AP journalists have covered conflict around the world for 163 years and witnessed countless scenes of war's deadly consequence," the wire service said in a statement. "But the decision to distribute them is never quickly or easily made. Ultimately, in this case, AP decided that, in the context of the full report, it was important to show readers and viewers the images."
Irby says it's important to have a process in place for making such decisions, to take the time to make them thoughtfully, and to explain them to your readers.
"You want to be able to say you made a thoughtful choice, and to be willing to disclose to your audience a level of transparency about how and why you made the decision."
But understand, also, that some of your decisions are bound to be unpopular with readers or viewers, no matter what.
"You'll never please all of the people all of the time," Irby says. "Journalism is not a popularity contest."