The Ethical Implications of Graphic Photos in News

Boston Strong

Social media played a huge role in the spreading of the news about the Boston Marathon bombings. Although I first found out about this tragic event via a pop-up on my phone from the CNN app, Facebook and Twitter were the first places I turned to to find out more information about what exactly happened on April 15, 2013. And I wasn’t alone, according to the Pew Research Center, a quarter of Americans and more than half of young Americans became informed about the bombings from social media. Along with the pages and pages of information about the bombings, there were many graphic photographs depicting the aftermath. One such photo showed a man by the name of Jeff Bauman, Jr, who had lost both of his legs in the blast. You can clearly see his face as he’s quickly being pushed in a wheelchair to a nearby ambulance. His look is full of shock, despair and utter disbelief. There’s no way someone could look at that image and not feel something for this man. What must be running through his mind? What must his family think about all of this? Will he survive?

As a journalism major, my professors always emphasized that the job of a journalist was to report the facts. But what happens when reporting the facts involves publishing a photo that you can’t even stomach? Advocates for the publication of graphic photos, argue that text can never show the true magnitude of a horror as visuals do. Natalie Raabe, a spokesperson from The Atlantic, a publication that decided to publish this photo, told The New York Observer,” We agree that this image is difficult to look at, but believe that it is also a true depiction of the terrible nature of this story. We were careful to prepare viewers for the graphic content, including a warning that entirely obscures the photo.” The Atlantic and Buzzfeed were among the publications that ultimately decided to publish the image. The New York Times, however, decided against it. One of the newspaper’s senior photographers, James Estrin, said he wasn’t sure that the graphicness of the photo advanced the story.

Putting emotions aside for a second, I think the New York Times was on to something here. If a graphic photo adds some sort of news value by helping to advance the story, then perhaps it is ethically OK to publish; however, if it adds nothing but a feeling of overwhelming horror, it probably shouldn’t be included. But if you ask me, emotions can’t be put aside in a situation such as this. Emotions become all-consuming when you look at this picture. And if you ask Bauman, his initial reaction to his photographer was, “Why isn’t he helping? People are dying.” By the time, Bauman had gained consciousness two days after the picture was taken, the photo had gone viral. In fact, that’s how his parents and close friends found out he was hurt. “No information, just an image: my lower right leg gone, my lower left leg stripped to the bone.” While the man who took the picture is a photojournalist by profession, he’s a human above all else, and should’ve, therefore, acted instinctively and helped wheel Bauman to the ambulance much like Boston Marathon bystander, Carlos Arredondo did. And you can tell he felt guilty about his decision because the first thing he said to Bauman when he met him almost a year after the incident was “I’m sorry.”

The image in question had managed to, in some way, crystalize the horror and cruelty of the bombing. Along with its publishing came many ethical issues. Should his family, who wasn’t even at the race, have to find out about their son’s injuries via a viral photo on the Internet? Choosing to publish this photograph showed complete disregard for his family and close friends who’d rather find out what happened in a more private manner. When The Guardian interviewed Bauman about the tragedy almost a year later, he said, “Part of me, I guess, wishes the picture had never been taken at all. I wish my mom hadn’t seen me that way, because she couldn’t find me for hours afterward, and that was cruel. I wish I wasn’t the face of the victims – three lost near the finish line and hundreds injured – because then everyone would forget about me, and I could recover in peace, and at my own pace.” Was it really necessary to publish this photo? Could a text-only article or one with less graphic photos have done just as good of a job as this picture did at depicting the horror of this event? I think so. But would it have the “wow” factor that so many journalists and publishers crave no matter the situation? Probably not. Seeing this photo could bring back terrible life-altering feelings to the victim who’s simply trying to put that day behind him. And finally, by publishing images such as these, it’s further promoting terrorists’ agenda, as do the ISIS beheading videos. Do we really need to torture Americans to the point where they don’t feel safe in their own country doing their normal day-to-day tasks? Is doing so ethical? Personally, I don’t think so.

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2 thoughts on “The Ethical Implications of Graphic Photos in News

  1. Hi Lynette!
    Your post this week really made me think about a new aspect of this graphic image scenario. It is unethical for a human being to take pictures of the pain of another instead of offering help. I don’t believe the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. How many articles, books or stories have you read that connected with you way more than an image can. That also brings me to the idea that images taken out of context can actually do more to sway a story away from how it factually unfolded by sensationalizing one aspect. Thank you for the great post this week!

  2. Hi Wendy,

    Thank you for commenting! I agree with you. When you see someone suffering and there’s something you could do to help, but you don’t do it, I, too, view that as being unethical. However, I have to admit that there are some graphic images from tragic events that have really stuck with me. Take the photo of the Napalm girl from the Vietnam War. It was a graphic image depicting a child who’s clothes had been burned off while she was running away from the fire in her village. While this image may be considered unethical, it provided me with a visual of how terrible things really were during that time. That being said, I’m not in favor if images being used to sensationalize one specific aspect of a tragic event.

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