In the wake of recent US mass shootings, American media are again grappling with an age-old debate of whether it’s ethical to show graphic images of violence. And even the subject of Nick Ut’s iconic Vietnam war photo, Napalm Girl, is chiming in.
The New York Times and The New Yorker both published opinion articles asking whether media companies need to show pictures of harrowing scenes caused by mass shooters in an effort to galvanise the public.
The inference is that showing what a psychopath with military-style assault weapons can do to a child’s body may lead to change.
Susie Linfield, journalism professor at NYU and author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, states that ‘photographic images can bring us close to the experience of suffering — and, in particular, to the physical torment that violence creates — in ways that words do not’.
‘The question of how much violence we should see, and to what end, is almost as old as photography itself. But the question gains urgency in our age of unfiltered immediacy — of the 24-hour news cycle, of Instagram and Twitter, of jihadi beheading videos, of fake news and conspiracy theorists and of repellent sites like BestGore, which revel in sadistic carnage. What responsibilities does the act of seeing entail? Is the viewing of violence an indefensible form of collaboration with it? Is the refusal to view violence an indefensible form of denial?
In the case of Uvalde [school shooting], a serious case can be made — indeed, I agree with it — that the nation should see exactly how an assault rifle pulverises the body of a 10-year-old, just as we needed to see (but rarely did) the injuries to our troops in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A violent society ought, at the very least, to regard its handiwork, however ugly, whether it be the toll on the men and women who fight in our name, on “ordinary” crime victims killed or wounded by guns or on children whose right to grow up has been sacrificed to the right to bear arms.
Linfield’s mention of ‘the age of unfiltered immediacy’ – the 24-hour news cycle and social media – may actually lessen the sustained impact of images. A 2017 article co-written by University of Oregon assistant professor of visual communication, Nicole Smith Dahmen, and professor of psychology, Paul Slovic, noted how gut-wrenching images of Syrian chemical warfare had ‘once again awakened the world’, but only for a short amount of time.
‘Images can alert us to the horrors of war and the true importance of human lives,’ they wrote. ‘But as we have seen time and again, photographs and news footage of human suffering generally precipitate a short-term emotional reaction, rather than a sustained humanitarian response.’
Although Dahmen and Slovic’s skepticism about the merit of publishing graphic images hinged on the fact that these were images coming from conflicts in the Middle East. Showing murdered American children will likely evoke a much stronger response among US citizens.
Jelani Cobb, award-winning staff writer for The New Yorker and teacher at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, tackles the matter in a more nuanced and complex manner than Linfield:
The sheer redundancy of these needless tragedies has people searching for any dynamic that might finally effect a meaningful response to them. David Boardman, the dean of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, wrote, on Twitter, “Couldn’t have imagined saying this years ago, but it’s time—with the permission of a surviving parent—to show what a slaughtered 7-year-old looks like. Maybe only then will we find the courage for more than thoughts and prayers.”
In the past week, others have begun to consider the idea. The Times ran an exploration of the politics of graphic images and their power to shape public opinion, and CNN’s Brian Stelter took up the issue on his show. Many people, having repeatedly grieved children murdered by semi-automatic weaponry, have come to suspect that only showing what an AR-15-style rifle actually does to a child’s body will shock gun-reform opponents out of inaction. But, while this thinking is understandable, it is probably misguided, and potentially self-defeating. Showing such images could cause the sympathetic public to avoid media coverage of these incidents; for those who do look, it might risk inuring them to the terrible nature of gun violence.
Cobb concludes that publishing these images would be a ‘step backward’, given media are increasingly reticent to publish names of mass murderers or their ‘manifestos’.
Weaponising such images for US gun reform may also be received as extremely poor taste.
The Golden rule: ‘never publish images of a dead child’
Western mainstream media mostly avoids publishing confronting images of death, such as dead bodies or violent and gruesome scenes. Especially when the victims are children.
There are several reasons why picture editors hold back publishing these images. They don’t wish to circulate the images in respect to family and friends, or to violate the deceased’s dignity, or confront and offend the broader public with disturbing pictures.
Although there are exceptions to this rule. A picture editor may publish a graphic image if they feel it’s of significant public interest, and is powerful enough to galvanise people to act in a way that words or other pictures cannot.
In 2019 Associated Press published photos, captured by Mexican photojournalist Julia La Duc, of a drowned Salvadoran father and his 23-month-old daughter. The Central American migrants sought asylum in the US, and drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande river.
Senior vice president and chair of Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, Kelly McBride, describes the image’s contents as ‘the consequences of American policies at the southern border’:
‘Editors at the AP recognized the power of the image as soon as they saw it Monday evening, said Paul Haven, director of global top stories. He said that AP photographers have a strong relationship with [Mexican newspaper] La Jornada, and reporters and editors checked out La Duc’s story, including interviewing police officers and other witnesses who were on the scene. They examined the original file to ensure it was not inappropriately edited.
“It’s a timely, powerful image because of composition. The father and daughter together is especially poignant,” said AP Vice President for Standards John Daniszewski. “Although many people die along the border every year trying to get into the U.S., very rarely do we get a photo that tells the story so well.”
It’s interesting how ‘inappropriate editing’ seems more problematic than publishing a photo of a drowned baby. The AP copped criticism for publishing the photo from a Hispanic journalism group that viewed the image as ‘exploitative and dehumanising’.
La Duc’s image is similar to pictures captured in 2015 by Turkish journalist, Nilüfer Demir of drowned three-year-old Syrian, Aylan Kurdi. Despite the images firstly going viral on social media, several major outlets were forced to defend the decision to publish them after facing public backlash.
There were two images: one of Kurdi being carried by a Turkish policeman, while another more vividly distressing image showed his lifeless body face down on the water’s edge. Most opted for the less graphic picture although Bild, Europe’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, bravely printed the more distressing image on its back page.
Here is an excerpt of Inside Imaging‘s coverage of the incident:
‘“The reason we’re talking about this photograph is not because it’s been taken or not because it’s been circulated, but it’s because it’s been published by mainstream media,” said Hugh Pinney, then-vice president at Getty Images. “And the reason we’re talking about it after it’s been published is because it breaks a social taboo that has been in place in the press for decades: a picture of a dead child is one of the golden rules of what you never published.”
Pinney concludes the reason the photo received unprecedented media coverage is due to social media providing the media with ‘courage’.
“We got to this point because individuals have had the balls to publish the pictures themselves on social media,” Pinney said. “I think that gave the mainstream media the courage and the conviction to publish this picture.”
While these powerful images brought home the reality of the European refugee crisis and helped push governments including our own to alter their stance on (Syrian) refugees, some readers of Bild and other publications were offended. Enough so that Bild’s editorial team felt it necessary to make a big statement. It removed all editorial photos and replaced them with grey boxes in the print edition, which reportedly sells 2.2 million copies a day. Images on the website and social media handles were also blanked out -for most of the day.
Bild compared the Aylan Kurdi image to Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl – one of many iconic graphic Vietnam war images that significantly bolstered public opinion against the conflict.
Kim Phuc, the naked girl in Ut’s photo, remarkably survived the horrific burns and now operates a foundation providing assistance to child victims of war. In a New York Times article marking the 50th anniversary of Napalm Girl, Phuc writes about how challenging it was to come to terms with the photo and how her nine-year-old self became a symbol of the horrors of war. Phuc then suggests the ‘Napalm Girl‘ of US mass shootings – a photo that doesn’t yet exist – could have a similar impact on swaying the nation to act.
‘We may not see the bodies [of domestic mass shootings], as we do with foreign wars, but these attacks are the domestic equivalent of war,’ Phuc writes. ‘The thought of sharing the images of the carnage, especially of children, may seem unbearable — but we should confront them. It is easier to hide from the realities of war if we don’t see the consequences.
‘I cannot speak for the families in Uvalde, Texas, but I think that showing the world what the aftermath of a gun rampage truly looks like can deliver the awful reality. We must face this violence head-on, and the first step is to look at it.’
Media outlets and newspapers have historically taken risks by publishing confronting images. And in some cases it has been worth it. But showing how an assault rifle ‘pulverises’ a child’s body is venturing into uncharted waters.