Recent mass shootings, including one in which 19 elementary school children were killed in Uvalde, Texas, have pushed some journalists to suggest news outlets should publish, or consider publishing, graphic images from those shootings to show the unvarnished reality of what fired bullets do to human bodies.
The media debate that took off in late May was notable for its emotion and urgency, particularly in the language from journalists who have extensively covered gun violence.
A few examples:
- David Boardman, dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University and former executive editor of the Seattle Times, told Philadelphia Magazine on May 26 that “we, as journalists, have to face up to the fact that our textual description of this sort of heinous crime, and pictures of these innocent young children, in their angelic form, isn’t moving citizenry and isn’t moving, certainly, the political machine the way it needs to be moved.”
- Sewell Chan, editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, told Vanity Fair, also on May 26, that he is “sympathetic to those who argue that we need to be confronted with the raw images of lives shattered by gun violence,” but “also concerned that could come across as exploitative or unethical or unseemly.”
- CNN host Jake Tapper on May 25, the day after the killings in Uvalde, which also left two teachers dead, said this: “There are images of these shootings that law enforcement — and, frankly, we in the news media — that we don’t share with you because they’re so horrific. They’re so awful. But maybe we should. Maybe the shock to the system would prompt our leaders to figure out how to make sure society can stop these troubled men, and it’s almost always men, from obtaining these weapons used to slaughter our children.”
- John Temple, who as editor of the defunct Rocky Mountain News in Denver published a photo of a dead student following the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999, also offered a note of pause, writing in The Atlantic on June 6: “I worry that making public photos of obliterated children will motivate others to see how much damage they can cause, will normalize unthinkable violence, and will be used in a hateful way, against the families of the dead or as threats to others. Rather, I would look for photographs that won’t make people turn away, that will hold their gaze.”
President Joe Biden signed legislation on June 25 that expands criminal and mental health background checks for some people who want to buy a gun, and uses grant funding to incentivize states to enact red flag laws, among other measures. It’s the most extensive federal gun-related legislation in decades.
Still, the legislation falls short of more sweeping measures Democrats have pushed in the past. While the two major parties found slivers of common ground, when it comes to addressing gun violence the political climate remains divisive.
Likewise, the media debate about whether to publish graphic images is not over.
To publish or not to publish?
Newsroom debates over the appropriateness and consequences of publishing graphic images are not new. But following Uvalde, the tenor seems to have reached a pitch not necessarily unheard of, but perhaps more public and coming from more influential journalists than ever before.
Relatedly, there is the question of whether to show images that depict the reality of everyday gun violence in many American communities. In February, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported firearm injuries have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of death for people 19 and younger in the U.S.
Beneath this difficult debate about journalism ethics, editorial control and dignity for the dead lies a serious consideration awaiting some newsroom in the U.S. the next time a mass shooting occurs:
To publish or not to publish graphic images?
In conversations over the past two weeks, The Journalist’s Resource gathered insights from a dozen experts to help answer that question.
And the answer is that there is no clear answer. But many other questions emerged for newsroom leaders to consider before publishing or broadcasting graphic images from a shooting. The outcome will hinge on context: what the image or images depict and the connections the news outlet has with local communities, to name two factors.
The experts we talked with include a lawyer for The New York Times, a former longtime editor of a community newspaper in Minnesota and several academic media scholars, some of whom are former journalists. Many have published peer-reviewed research on how news outlets use images and how the public interprets them, with some of that research highlighted below.
Access to graphic images — whether a photojournalist would be able to take graphic images from a mass shooting — is something that came up during our conversations. As Temple, the former Rocky Mountain News editor, put it in The Atlantic, “editors can’t publish photos they don’t have.”
Several people we spoke with echoed that sentiment.
“In general, it’s highly unlikely as a journalist that you’re going to really get graphic, graphic footage — I mean like dead bodies,” says Karen McIntyre, a former local news reporter in northern California who is now an associate professor of multimedia journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s just highly unlikely that you would be there before that would be all caution-taped off.”
On the other hand, McIntyre and others acknowledged it is plausible to imagine a scenario in which journalists covering a public event, such as a protest, parade or school board meeting, suddenly find themselves covering a mass shooting and serving as history’s first responders.
If the question does arise for a newsroom in the weeks, months or years ahead, the following questions and thoughts can help editors arrive at an answer that fits their organization’s standards and works for the communities they serve.
Everyone we asked agreed newsrooms should have these conversations and make a plan for how to handle graphic images before facing the choice of whether to publish.
Can we legally publish graphic images?
If your news outlet owns the image rights — if, for example, a staff photographer or freelancer takes the pictures or video — or obtains an image or video following regular journalistic standards, then yes.
“Typically, in the United States, there isn’t an issue,” says Al-Amyn Sumar, counsel at The New York Times Company and an adjunct professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. “If you were to get an invasion of privacy claim, you would say that the photograph is newsworthy, which is usually a total defense. The kinds of photos we’re talking about are taken in public places where the law tends to say there was no kind of expectation of privacy.”
The question at issue is almost certainly ethical rather than legal, Sumar says.
Are we asking the right fundamental question?
The framework for our interviews with experts assumed newsrooms would want to consider a range of potential consequences before showing graphic images.
Most experts we spoke with implicitly accepted this framework. They dove into a variety of dilemmas, including concerns about glorifying mass shooters.
“We know that these images act as a contagion for them to be outdone,” says Nicole Dahmen, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. “Somebody out there wants to outdo them and that’s a real risk of publishing these photos.”
However, one expert offers a different perspective: Barbie Zelizer, director of the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Zelizer, who was a Reuters wire reporter in the Middle East early in her career, pinpoints an essential question: Is the event newsworthy?
“The point that needs to be made, and that should be made, and that has not yet been made, is the idea that the appropriateness of images is misplaced,” she says. “We don’t talk about the appropriateness of news. My argument has always been if we make an assumption about when something is newsworthy in terms of the words it uses, it should be the same in terms of the pictures it shows.”
In short, if an event is newsworthy enough to cover in text, it is newsworthy enough to cover in images, even if those images are more graphic than news audiences are used to seeing. Zelizer calls herself “a minority voice in this,” but says that while considerations about consequences are not without value, consequences are essentially unknowable.
“In a funny way, the tabloids have it right,” she says, “in the sense that the tabloids don’t censor themselves, they don’t harness what their representations are going to look like in accordance with questions of appropriateness or privacy.”
If you agree with Zelizer, the answer as to whether to publish becomes clearer. The more productive question, she says, centers on how images are displayed in print and online, which we discuss later on.
What are your motivations?
By far the most common point the experts made was that a newsroom should honestly examine their motivations for wanting to publish photographs or video of dead, dying or seriously wounded shooting victims.
If the motivation is to drive website clicks or increase newspaper subscriptions, those are flat out not good reasons to publish graphic images, and could backfire.
But most news outlets will likely start from a place rooted in altruism. Some of the media debate so far has resonated as journalists, fed up with covering mass shootings, wanting politicians to “do something” about gun violence in the U.S. To “shock” the system, as Tapper said.
Yet an image that seems shocking inside a newsroom may not have a shocking effect once published, according to several people we spoke with.
“There’s a whole slew of studies on cognitive dissonance theory,” says Samuel Robert Lichter, professor of communication and director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. “When confronted with a new piece of evidence that goes against what you believe, instead of changing your opinion, you tend to try one of many different strategies to avoid it.”
Jim Pumarlo, who as editor of the Red Wing Republican Eagle covered communities southeast of the Twin Cities from 1982 to 2003, says “there’s so many other ways that you can deliver the story, in word and in photos without going to that final, real graphic one.”
A more forceful case for publication could be made if a news outlet believes their role is simply to preserve history, others say.
“That’s probably the most compelling reason for publication of these kinds of images, is that they should be lodged in the evidentiary record,” says Jessica Auchter, research chair in visual culture in international studies at Laval University in Quebec City and author of the 2021 book Global Corpse Politics: The Obscenity Taboo. “The historical record is composed of both text and images and there is something of value added to the historical record to having this in image form, in addition to reporting on it in text.”
In that case, it doesn’t matter whether an image fails to affect policy — an unknowable outcome in the first place. Editorial leaders at The New York Times, while discussing whether to publish pictures showing the human consequences of the war in Ukraine, factored their role as purveyors of the historical record into their decision to publish.
“There was a photographer, Lynsey Addario, who had taken some particularly graphic images and we decided to publish them, of victims of the war, including dead bodies,” Sumar says. “And the point was made that publishing these kinds of photos can be important, because they’re evidence of potential war crimes.”
A note to national news outlets considering publishing graphic images from a small town: Think locally. The descent of “newspapers in glitzy markets like New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Antonio” is something that Craig Garnett, editor and publisher of the Uvalde Leader-News, recently wrote about with palpable frustration. “In the blink of an eye, a force of state, national and world media launched an invasion of our city to rival the armed assault on a small nation,” Garnett writes. “Our grocery stores filled with unrecognizable faces and languages, giant trucks sprouted with satellite dishes and antennas squeezed into our back streets and news reporters and cameramen began probing our populace with hundreds of microphones and cameras.” Pumarlo, the former Republican Eagle editor, offers this advice for a national outlet considering publishing graphic images from a shooting in a small town: “Connect with some locals and get a feel. At least reach out and give the rationale,” he says, “show that they do have some feelings for the impact of what has happened on the local community. And that they’re not just sitting in New York or Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. or wherever, and making these decisions without any feeling of what’s the impact on the town.”
Do you have consent?
Most experts we spoke with agree it is essential for journalists to make their best effort to get consent of the victim in a photo or their surviving family.
This includes talking with people likely to be directly affected about the range of things that could happen once a graphic image of their slain relative is out there.
“It would really, I think, be the responsible, ethical thing for journalists to explain that these images will show up on 4chan,” says Jennifer Midberry, an assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University who researches the ethics of photographing marginalized populations and worked as a visual journalist for the Associated Press, The Philadelphia Daily News and other news organizations from 1999 to 2005. “There’s going to be a lot of hurtful memes, it’s going to be nasty. It could also, though, lead to gun control laws that would make the family feel like at least their child didn’t die in vain. You have to really talk about the spectrum of things to expect.”
Another familiar refrain from the people we spoke with: Remove the breaking news pressure. The decision whether to publish a graphic photo doesn’t need to be made at the exact moment families are dealing with the unexpected, violent loss of a loved one.
“In a breaking news context, I don’t know that the images of deceased people on the ground is something that should be rushed to be published,” says Kaitlin Miller, an assistant professor in the College of Communication & Information Sciences at The University of Alabama.
What is the race or ethnicity of the victims in images?
It’s not a hard and fast rule and it’s not exclusive to U.S.-based media, but news outlets are sometimes more apt to publish graphic images from conflicts and tragedies that happen far away from their coverage areas.
“The problematic side of this tendency is that the media treats suffering bodies unequally depending on their cultural and geographical closeness,” Jenni Mäenpää, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki who has studied how news outlets make decisions about images, explains by email.
The more anonymous an image is — the harder it is to identify the people in them — the more graphic it will tend to be, says Zelizer, who is also co-editor of Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, a peer-reviewed journal, and wrote the 2010 book About to Die: How News Images Move the Public.
Zelizer’s point is evident in the 2015 image of Aylan Kurdi, a drowned Syrian boy photojournalist Nilüfer Demir photographed lying face down on an Aegean beach in southwest Turkey.
The consideration is whether your news outlet is only showing people from certain backgrounds in certain situations — as crime victims, for example. Or, does your outlet successfully represent a range of people across a breadth of human experiences?
“There has been some discussion in the past about whether our standards have been applied consistently,” says Sumar, the Times lawyer. “In my experience, we try very hard to apply them consistently and we have, in the past, published photos of victims of all races. But that’s something that you have to be attentive to.”
How will we display the image?
There is no way to gauge what will happen to an image after it is published — the extent to which it will be misused and manipulated, or whether it will spur policy change. But news outlets should strive to provide as much context about the image as possible.
Here are some ideas from Dahmen, the University of Oregon professor:
- Use a single, powerful photo rather than multiple photos.
- Before showing the image, warn viewers it will be difficult to see.
- If printing the image, remove any advertisements from the page.
- If showing the image on television, allow it to speak for itself on screen for a period of time without distracting chyrons or in split screens with hosts or guests.
- If publishing digitally, put the image on a single page that can only be accessed from a link that clearly identifies the news outlet.
- Do not send the image via the news organization’s official social media channels.
Again, these are ideas from one person who has spent her career thinking deeply about the shortcomings and potential of journalism. E. Alison Holman, a professor of nursing at the University of California Irvine who has studied how viewers respond physically and mentally to graphic news images, agrees that trigger warnings are essential.
Holman adds that “there’s so much variation in how people respond to these things. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to any of this.”
Auchter, the Laval University research chair, is less certain about trigger warnings. She suggests that people should feel disrupted. That there is an argument to be made in favor of an average person who is enjoying their morning coffee suddenly having to confront a difficult image conveying a tragic truth — without the ability to avoid it.
“We often assume that trigger warnings are objectively neutral, it’s just something you have to click through to get to it,” Auchter says, “but we forget they are actually shaping the story by telling us how we should respond and how to interpret these images, as much as they are just providing that barrier before we get to the image.”
Lichter, the George Mason University professor, offers that the viral nature of social media could be a force for positive change, by bringing attention to the issue of gun violence to a wider audience than was possible before computers and smartphones.
And not everyone is convinced that a single image is the right call.
“The professional gravitation toward that iconic image, is that really what we need?” asks Zelizer. “Or do we need more images? I think we need more images, because I think more images do more for us understanding what’s going on than one iconic image.”
Dahmen also advises against publishing crime scene photos obtained from law enforcement, assuming the police agency would also release the photos. Law enforcement photos leaked to a journalist would also give Dahmen pause because, she says, “being the one who had the crime scene photos, being the one who got to publish them, it’s all going to drive likes, subscriptions and the financial business model of journalism — it’s not serving the public interest for the journalists to reprint those.”
Dahmen equates the scenario to a news outlet publishing a terrorist manifesto. Others we spoke with disagreed that law enforcement crime scene photos should be off limits.
Miller, the University of Alabama professor, agrees with Dahmen’s recommendations. She adds that an image “needs to be surrounded by a greater context, solution and an understanding of why these things are happening and where we need to move forward.”
Are you ready and able to explore solutions to gun violence?
Lauren Kogen, an assistant professor at the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University, sums up the solutions-oriented sentiment we heard over and over in our conversations:
“The ethical thing to do, as a news outlet, is to make darn sure that you’re providing [audiences] with the information that they would need as democratic voting citizens to go out there and create change,” she says, “to leave your news audience feeling powerless, to feel like there aren’t any solutions, then you are getting into the realm of being sensationalist.”
It’s not just a matter of ethics. Research shows audiences want solutions journalism, says McIntyre, the Virginia Commonwealth professor.
Solutions-oriented stories about policies that have worked in the real world to reduce gun violence — or that focus on community groups working to reduce firearm deaths, or explore systemic breakdowns that allow gun violence to perpetuate — are essential but often lacking, according to several people we spoke with.
“In the medical community, gun violence is considered a public health issue,” says Midberry, the Lehigh University professor. “But by and large, in U.S. news media it’s not discussed as a public health issue. It’s largely discussed as criminal justice. What we have seen from preliminary research we’ve done, which is aligned with previous research, is that there’s not as much reporting on potential solutions to these problems, compared to the volume of the coverage of the crime itself.”
Are you taking care of your journalists?
In the past, when the tough-it-out mentality reigned supreme in most news organizations, reporters often suffered in silence after covering difficult stories or witnessing traumatic events. But today, as journalists can connect in more ways than ever and more reporters are openly sharing their own experiences with trauma, discussions about secondary trauma and self-care have become less taboo.
- Organizations need to give time and resources to help reporters process their own trauma.
- Journalists need to schedule breaks into their workdays and also make time for rest and relaxation.
- Crucially, reporters need to remember why they love gathering the news.
“If you feel like what you’re doing has purpose, has meaning — not just for you, but for other people — and you’re making a contribution, that’s going to be good for your mental health, ultimately,” says Holman. “That’s something I think is really important to keep in mind — to remember that you are doing this for a reason.”
What the research says
The Power of Images? Visual Journalists’ Assessment of the Impact of Imagery
Nicole Smith Dahmen, Kaitlin Miller and Brent Walth. Visual Communication Quarterly, March 2021.
In the authors’ words: “Study findings show that most participants believe images can be agents for change, but they have not necessarily seen higher-level impacts. A key finding reveals that participants believe graphic images are not inherently more powerful vehicles for journalistic impact than less graphic images.”
Distributing Ethics: Filtering Images of Death at Three News Photo Desks
Jenni Mäenpää. Journalism, February 2021.
In the author’s words: “If death is made invisible or aestheticized in media imagery, the media fails to show the world as it is. This may shape the societal understanding of violent death in a way that people do not feel an urgent need for action, for instance, in cases of injustice.”
Compassionate Horror or Compassion Fatigue? Responses to Human-Cost-of-War Photographs
Jennifer Midberry. International Journal of Communication, 2020.
In the author’s words: “More specifically, this study suggests that reaction-to-loss is a particularly useful type of human-cost-of-war visual frame because it taps into media consumers’ emotions without causing as much distress as graphic violence. Another implication is that feelings of helplessness appear to mitigate people’s desire to engage with imagery of war.”
Media Exposure to Collective Trauma, Mental Health, and Functioning: Does It Matter What You See?
E. Alison Holman, Dana Rose Garfin, Pauline Lubens and Roxane Cohen Silver. Clinical Psychology Science, October 2019.
In the authors’ words: “Using data from a representative national sample, we demonstrated that both the quantity and the visually graphic nature of media exposure to a community trauma were independently associated with subsequent mental health and functional impairment.”
Solutions Journalism: The Effects of Including Solution Information in News Stories about Social Problems
Karen McIntyre. Journalism Practice, August 2019.
In the author’s words: “For journalists, these findings indicate that individuals will like stories more (feel less negative and have more favorable attitudes) if reporters include discussion of an effective solution to the problem.”
“This is Still their Lives”: Photojournalists’ Ethical Approach to Capturing and Publishing Graphic or Shocking Images
Kaitlin Miller and Nicole Dahmen. Journal of Media Ethics, February 2020.
In the authors’ words: “This research uses in-depth interviews with photojournalists to explore the decision-making process and ethical considerations involved in capturing and publishing such images. Research found participants justify taking and publishing graphic images as a way to empower subjects, while also informing audiences.”
Visually Reporting Mass Shootings: U.S. Newspaper Photographic Coverage of Three Mass School Shootings
Nicole Smith Dahmen. American Behavioral Scientist, February 2018.
In the author’s words: “Given contagion effects, this study finding raises serious concerns about current practices in news media publication of perpetrator photos. Although the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics encourages news media members to seek truth and report it, the code also emphasizes moral imperatives to ‘balance the public’s need for information against potential harms’ and ‘avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.’”
News You Can Use or News That Moves?
Lauren Kogen. Journalism Practice, November 2017.
In the author’s words: “The literature reviewed here illustrates that eschewing solutions-oriented information — defined as information related to cause, context, solutions, or general steps that could be taken to address social ills — can have the effect of disengaging audiences, creating compassion fatigue, and even stirring up resentment for a population that seems to keep finding itself on the edge of disaster.”
Iconic Photographs and the Ebb and Flow of Empathic Response to Humanitarian Disasters
Paul Slovic, Daniel Västfjäll, Arvid Erlandsson, and Robin Gregory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 2017.
In the authors’ words: “The iconic image of a young Syrian child, lying face-down on a beach, woke the world for a brief time, bringing much-needed attention to the war and the plight of its many victims. But this empathic response was short-lived.”
Caution — Graphic Images: The Politics of Obscene Dead Bodies
Jessica Auchter. Critical Studies on Security, June 2016.
In the author’s words: “Perhaps not pre-framing the encounter with the image would leave room for us to not be disturbed by the image, so that we can question our lack of disturbance, rather than feel self-righteous at our pre-formed disturbance that seems to linger only as long as the exposure to the image itself.”
Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings
Sherry Towers, et. al. PLOS ONE, July 2015.
In the authors’ words: “We find significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past … We find that state prevalence of firearm ownership is significantly associated with the state incidence of mass killings with firearms, school shootings and mass shootings.”
Jessica Auchter, research chair in visual culture in international studies at Laval University in Quebec.
Nicole Dahmen, associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon.
E. Alison Holman, professor of nursing at the University of California, Irvine.
Lauren Kogen, assistant professor at the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University.
Samuel Robert Lichter, professor of communication and director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.
Jenni Mäenpää, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki.
Karen McIntyre, associate professor of multimedia journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Jennifer Midberry, assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University.
Kaitlin Miller, assistant professor in the College of Communication & Information Sciences at The University of Alabama.
Jim Pumarlo, newsroom trainer and editor of the Red Wing Republican Eagle from 1982 to 2003.
Al-Amyn Sumar, counsel at The New York Times Company and adjunct professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.
Barbie Zelizer, director of the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and a spring 2004 fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, home of The Journalist’s Resource.