Should editors publish graphic images?
By Hope Cudly
The choice to or to not publish is a decision every editor has to make. Publications can get a lot of grief for the decisions that they make. As a student, I am trying to figure out where I stand on ethical issues before I start my professional career. One question that I struggle with is whether to publish graphic images.
It’s an issue hotly debated because of the effect that pictures have on people. In her book “Regarding the Pain of Others,” author Susan Sontag wrote, “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.”
Bruce Thorson, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, thinks that it is important to really view all of the options before publishing anything.
“It is sometimes better to post a photo on the inside of a newspaper, instead of on the cover,” Thorson said.
Good editors will consider all of the harm that could be done by publishing a photo. If the family of a photo subject has to look at a horrible photo in every newspaper, is it really worth publishing? Some editors may argue that once a photo is in circulation, choosing not to publish will not make a difference because everyone will see it anyway, especially in today’s world of ubiquitous social media.
“The first things I think about when deciding to publish is whether or not it adds anything to my story,” Thorson said. “Do I need this picture to get a point across or are there any specific reasons I need to publish it? If not, I probably will decide against publishing.”
The consensus from many professionals is that easy answers don’t exist. There are very good reasons to bypass a graphic photo. If the photo is being used only for sensational purposes, it is a bad idea to publish. In its August 2010 issue, Time magazine published an image of young Afghan woman whose nose and ears were chopped off as a result of a Taliban decree because she had fled her abusive in-laws. The magazine got a lot of negative responses to the photo. In his blog post, Daniel Martin Varisco, an anthropology professor at Hofstra University, said that the photo was “startling, haunting, disturbing and an unfortunate example of sensationalized news reporting.”
In response, Time’s managing editor Richard Stengel defended his decision in the magazine saying: “[Bad] things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening – and what can happen – in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.”
Overall, I think the most important thing to consider is the purpose for publishing. It’s also critical to consult with fellow editors. As long as there is a good reason, publishing a graphic photo is not a bad thing.
This Poynter Institute for Media Studies article raises other questions you should ask before publishing.