Why show dead people in the news?

July 2014

There’s a sen­ti­ment I’ve encountered again lately: Don’t show pho­to­graphs of dead or injured/traumatized people in the news. Why? Because “showing this doesn’t add any­thing to the story”, because “showing the dead takes their dignity”, because “chil­dren shouldn’t see this.”

While I respect why people would argue like this, I assume most if not all argu­ments actu­ally ori­gin­ate from a very human desire:

Don’t make me feel uncom­fort­able.

It is not a new sen­ti­ment, of course, and it’s OK on its own. News cov­er­age has often been chal­lenged to find a balance between a proper, fair rep­res­ent­a­tion of reality on the ground and the absorb­ing capa­city of its audi­ence.

But that balance, with its indis­put­able imper­fec­tions, seems to become less import­ant lately. When in doubt, making sure visual news don’t leave the comfort zone has pri­or­ity now. Brows­ing through his­tor­ical pics illus­trates this all the more.

Take a minute and watch a few iconic pho­to­graphs that have been pub­lished in the 20th century. Ask your­self – would they (or similar sub­jects) appear on a 2014 news­pa­per front page, on a quality news website or on TV evening news? Would they appear in your medium?

The Falling Soldier

Never. Prob­ably.

Warsaw Ghetto Upris­ing

I doubt it. Maybe. Prob­ably accom­pan­ied by a debate about children’s privacy.

Mas­sacre in Vinnyt­sia

Never.

Napalm attack on Trang Bang

Never.

Saigon exe­cu­tion

Never. Ever.

Mas­sacre in Bijeljina

Most likely not.

I link to these pic­tures because I think they demon­strate how hasty and mis­guided a notion like “pho­to­graphs of dead or injured/traumatized people are not adding to the story” is. As a matter of fact not much adds more to a story than pic­tures cap­tur­ing reality. From a journ­al­istic per­spect­ive their impact can’t be over­es­tim­ated. It is the pho­to­graphs people remem­ber after decades. I’m worried about a tend­ency to skip those uncom­fort­able pics.

But where are the limits, I hear you ask. And you’re right. Showing grue­some details in high res­ol­u­tion doesn’t add to a story. We’re in the news busi­ness, not in gore, after all.

On the other hand making the dead com­pletely dis­ap­pear in the editing process doesn’t help either. I guess showing dead bodies in the context of war cov­er­age is a simple neces­sity – because cutting out that people die in a war would be per­ceived as a dis­tor­tion of reality.

Let’s not forget that pho­to­graph­ers on the ground are jour­nalists like the rest of us, com­mit­ted to stand­ards and a proper rep­res­ent­a­tion of facts. It must be weird, dis­heart­en­ing to wade through dead bodies for days and see only innu­endo pics being pub­lished.

Is there a prag­matic solu­tion? I think so. Do show dead bodies if they are part of the story – but be careful choos­ing the right pic­tures. Doc­u­ment­ing death doesn’t mean it has to qualify as an anatomy course. Looking back at the New York Times front page pho­to­graph, I’d argue it was OK to publish. It hurts to watch, agreed. But that alone is no reason to reject it.

Then there’s dignity. From all argu­ments against showing dead people dignity seems the most ques­tion­able to me. The very core of photo journ­al­ism is report­ing about the world as it is – in some cases that means showing how people are treated without dignity, how they have been left behind (some­times dead) without dignity in the most miser­able con­di­tions.

Making this public is a photo journalist’s only weapon of change.

Not allow­ing a photo journ­al­ist with a con­science to tell unpol­ished stories of debase­ment, viol­ence and injustice means redu­cing her/his job to story illus­trat­ing. It’s almost impossible to do ded­ic­ated photo journ­al­ism without expos­ing sub­jects and their humi­li­ations.

As for chil­dren and news cov­er­age of war and death, I’m not sure what to think. I have no chil­dren, so I guess it’s not my busi­ness to lecture parents. However, looking at the enorm­ous amount of intense war and cata­strophe footage that is freely avail­able online, I doubt it’s a good idea to leave it to Liveleak (you’ve been warned) e.a. to intro­duce chil­dren to various flavors of mor­tal­ity. Not hiding the news­worthy dead from chil­dren while embed­ding the uncom­fort­able news in context and values seems a more reas­on­able approach to me.

Thoughts, com­ments? Let me know via Twitter.