The ethics of graphic photos

Because photographs produce powerful emotional responses in viewers, we have a long-held understanding that members of the media must show particular ethical concern when taking, selecting and using photographs. One of the longest-running ethical debates in visual journalism is the extent to which graphic and/or violent photos should be present in our news media.

The topic, once again, came up this week after the New York Post published a photo of a man about to be crushed by a subway. The New York Post was heavily criticized for printing the photo as was the photographer himself.

Much has been written about the photo this week, but, I believe, Kelly McBride at Poynter says it best:

“This photo doesn’t have any of those redeeming journalistic qualities [informing the public of gross tragedies and holding the powerful accountable]. But it causes great harm, to the family of the man, to those of us who view it and to the community of New York. It is sensational and voyeuristic and nothing more.

When you publish or pass along photos of pending death without purpose, you might as well be posting a snuff film. There is no redeeming value.”

I am not re-publishing the photo here because, as McBride says, it has no redeeming value. It is simply sensational.

On one side of the debate is the fundamental function of the news media: to provide fair and accurate information to the public with the understanding that our democracy cannot prosper without an informed populace. Given this understanding, if the public needs the information in a graphic photo to make informed choices for society, then the news media have an obligation to run the photo. According to Mallette (1976), “The frozen moment … remains. It can haunt. It can hurt and hurt again. It can also leave an indelible message about the betterment of society, the end of war, the elimination of hunger, the alleviation of human misery.”

On the other side of the debate is the innate understanding that the subject of a graphic photo is often a victim of violence–a victim who is someone’s child, partner or parent. By running the photo, the news media are exploiting the victim by infringing on that person’s suffering and right to privacy (Goodwin, 1983). Printing of graphic photos also has been linked with negative uses of sensationalism by the news media as evidenced through the well-known, yet often unspoken, sentiment, “if it bleeds, it leads” (Lester, 1991).

The dilemma, of course, lies in the disagreement of what is in the public’s best interest and who has the authority to make such a decision. 

Substantial research has been devoted to this area; yet the results are mixed, and therefore, the topic is worthy of continued academic and professional study.

Read the full Poynter article here:


One response to “The ethics of graphic photos

  1. Pingback: Photos beyond borders: Visual presentation of news from a global perspective | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

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