Letter from the Editor: Should we publish graphic images to focus attention on mass shootings?

by admin
Letter from the Editor: Should we publish graphic images to focus attention on mass shootings?
Letter from the Editor: Should we publish graphic images to focus attention on mass shootings?


When I wrote two weeks ago about mass shootings, I didn’t realize how soon newsrooms once again would need to grapple with ethical and practical questions about how to cover them.

Like so many of you, I was shocked by the mass murder inside a Uvalde, Texas, classroom, just days after the racist slaughter of 10 Black shoppers in Buffalo, New York.

One conversation that emerged from the horror of the school shooting is whether journalists should change their usual practice and instead show, in graphic detail, the bodies of slain children. Perhaps only then, the thinking goes, will public sentiment turn on lawmakers who block common sense gun safety measures.

On May 24, David Boardman, longtime Northwest journalist, now a journalism school dean, sparked this debate by tweeting: “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.”

Editors often defend showing graphic images as required for a full understanding of important issues — or as necessary shock treatment to bring home the gravity of a problem.

Boardman, the dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University, is the former executive editor of The Seattle Times and no stranger to tough newsroom decisions. He no doubt knows showing such images would provoke outrage and anger among readers.

But we also can list dozens of now-famous images that editors chose to publish, even knowing readers would object, or even cancel their subscription. Many of those images resulted in exactly the sort of discussion, self-examination and action that Boardman is contemplating.

Examples I cited in a previous column included Nick Ut’s famed photograph of a Vietnamese girl screaming from the effects of napalm, which helped turn public sentiment against the Vietnam War. The excruciating video of a policeman kneeling on George Floyd’s neck as he died set off a tsunami of social justice protests.

Boardman says the response from journalists and non-journalists has been overwhelmingly positive. “There have been a few critics who say it would be gruesome and insensitive, and others who say it would make no difference,” he told me by email. “But most people are saying that in these desperate circumstances, what would previously have been considered desperate measures might be necessary.”

The Oregonian in some limited circumstances has chosen to show disturbing images. We published a photo of a young man’s destroyed face after he tried to kill himself using a shotgun. He participated in the article to raise awareness of teen depression. We once published a photograph showing the dangling feet of two young heroin addicts who had hanged themselves from a downtown bridge. They had left a note saying they wanted to call attention to the problem of addiction.

After a gunman shot and killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, the local sheriff spearheaded an effort to remove images of such crime scenes from the public record in Oregon. After many months, media outlets were clamoring for the long-awaited investigative report into the 2015 mass shooting, but the records included photographs from the classrooms that showed murder victims.

In 2017, The Oregonian/OregonLive quoted Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin as saying, “I’ve never seen a situation where sharing images of the deceased are in the best interest of the public.”

Oregon, like some other states, did pass a law restricting the release of such crime scene images. The Oregonian/OregonLive was among the media outlets that lobbied to narrow the original proposal, which would have applied to all images “related to death,” and to add a public interest test.

One of my arguments, as I recall, was this: what if someone was found dead in a jail cell, and the family alleged official misconduct? I can think of many instances where the press, and the public, have legitimate interests in what such photos might show.

The restriction on images is now part of the personal privacy exemption to Oregon’s generally broad public records law. It says that images of a dead body are exempt from disclosure “if public disclosure would create an unreasonable invasion of privacy of the family of the deceased person, unless the public interest by clear and convincing evidence requires disclosure in the particular interest.”

I am a consistent proponent of government transparency but was satisfied with this balancing of private and public interests.

In the abstract, it is easy to support any idea that might halt the violence. But I’m not sure I’d approve publication of photos of murdered children. As is often the case with journalistic decisions it depends on the facts: How newsworthy is the event? What exactly does the photo show?

These are all important questions to consider as we seek an ethical and thoughtful path forward during fast-breaking, harrowing news events.


Source link

You may also like