“Tears of the living”

“I would argue that the tears of the living are a more potent weapon against the wrongs of society than the blood of the dead.”

Rich Beckman, Professor, John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Visual Journalism, School of Communication at the University of Miami

These poignant words have haunted me since I first read them many years ago. They, once again, surfaced to the forefront of my mind this week when I gazed upon the below New York Times front page photo from Sergey Ponomarev.


The photo is just one of the many harrowing photos from Gaza. But this photo is different.

There is no blood. There is no death. But there most certainly is pain.

The photo jumped out at me from the newsstand; my breath shook, and I was moved to tears. I ached for the children’s pain. I feared for their parents. I wanted to run home and hug my own 5-year-old son.

“I would argue that the tears of the living are a more potent weapon against the wrongs of society than the blood of the dead.”

Beckman’s astute words were written more than 20 years ago, but they are still true today.

They were true in 1970 when John Filo captured Mary Ann Vecchio screaming in horror over Jeffrey Miller’s body after he was shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard.

They were true in 2000 when Alan Diaz captured Elian Gonzalez crying in fear as he was seized at gunpoint by federal agents.

And they were true this week when Sergey Ponomarev captured the fear and horror of Palestinian children who are bearing witness to unceasing violence.

The long-running discussion in visual journalism about the extent to which graphic and/or violent photographs belong in our news media is once again being debated. And, rightfully so. Photographs produce powerful emotional responses in viewers. As such, members of the news media should show particular ethical concern when taking, selecting, and using photographs.

On one side of the debate is the journalistic responsibility to provide accurate information; this is commonly known to be the “watchdog” function of the news media. Rooted in the social responsibility theory of the press, if the public needs the information in a graphic photograph to make an informed choice for society, then the news media have an obligation to run the photo.

On the other side of the debate is the journalistic responsibility to minimize harm, both to the victim and to the victim’s family. With this understanding, the news media have the potential to take on the unfavorable and damaging role of “voyeur.”

Ethically speaking, when do the actions of journalists move from that watchdog to that of voyeur? Returning to John Filo’s 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of Mary Vecchio screaming in horror over the body of slain Kent State University student Jeff Miller, Wischmann (1987) presents her argument against the printing of photos like this one. Wischmann writes,

“Jeff Miller’s death, that most private of moments, was stolen. It became a commodity to be bought and sold, to confer prizes on, to launch careers with, and to advertise products. When one has the misfortune to die in public, privacy rights evaporate, superseded by that slippery public right to know. I believe that is wrong. Everyone should be entitled to the privacy of his or her own death” (68).

The central claim of Wischmann’s (1987) argument is that while photographs are often thought to be a complete and accurate representation of an event, they do not tell the whole story. In the case of Filo’s photograph, Wischmann argues that the national debate should have been one of “moral outrage—this should have never happened to anyone” (69). Instead, based on the fact that in the photograph the cause of Miller’s death is unknown and the central focus of the image is Vecchio’s horror-struck face, the photograph shifted the national debate to “one of fear—look what can happen to you” (69). Due to the emotional power of photographs, Wischmann concludes, “Photographs are capable of not only obscuring issues but of overwhelming facts” (70).

The extent of acceptability of graphic or violent photographs in our news media has been a topic of ongoing academic study, yet the results are mixed. And as time progresses and technology continues to make rapid advances, we must continue our scholarly pursuit of this ethical topic. In regard to the inclusion of graphic photographs, we must ask, at what point do the news media move from the “watchdog” role through proving information to a populace to the “voyeur” role through the sensational exploitation of victims and family members?

There are certainly instances in which select photos should be deemed overly graphic or sensational. In covering the downed Malaysian Airline from July 2014 in which all 298 people on board died, the mainstream media in the United States generally showed great restraint—and rightly so—in not running the highly-graphic photographs from the crash scene. While the photos were available, it was a case in which highly-crafted language more appropriately and more ethically illustrated the gruesome reality of the scene. Wrote Sabrina Tavernise (2014) of The New York Times,

“A woman in a black sweater lay on her back, blood streaming from her face, her left arm raised as if signaling someone. Another victim, naked except for a black bra, lay on the field, her gray hair mixing with the green grass, one leg broken and her body torn” (A1).

The words are poignant and memorable; the photographs are sensational.

In a newsroom, numerous elements go into the decision to run or not run a given photograph. The decision should always be made with the highest degree of journalistic integrity, warns Irby (2014). And with the shift from print to digital news, editors now have the option of including substantially more photos with any given story—in a digital world we are no long confined by column inches or number of pages. Further, in a digital world, news on the Internet can be voluntarily “sought out,” while news in print newspaper is more likely to be “stumbled upon,” thus lending increased support for including graphic photographs within a context that can enhance audience understanding of a news story. However, we must be incredibly vigilant about ensuring that photographs remain in context in a digital media environment. With social media, it is far too easy to share photographs “without a proper editorial context or attribution,” cautions Yu. Adding support to the analogy posed earlier, Yu writes, “Unsourced photos in social media can all too easily become fodder for voyeurism.”

There can be a fine line between journalism and sensationalism—and that line should never be ignored, especially considering extensive media coverage of graphic events in which visual coverage exploits victims and glamorizes perpetrators. Journalists and media producers must always be mindful of Wischmann’s (1987) argument that photos not be used in isolation and that they not be used in such a way as to “overwhelm” the facts (70). This is especially relevant in a digital media environment. And as academics, we must persist in our scholarly investigation of this critical and ethical topic.



Beckman, Rich. 1991. “Toward a Philosophy of Research in Photojournalism Ethics.” In Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach, edited by Paul Martin Lester. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Irby, Kenneth. 2014. “Advice on Publishing Graphic Photos from Iraq.” Poynter Institute. http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/visual-voice/255944/advice-on-publishing-graphic-photos-from-iraq/.

Lester, Paul Martin. 1991. Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2014. “Fallen Bodies and Debris, Mundane and Grisly.” The New York Times, July 18.

Wischmann, Lesley. 1987. “Dying on the Front Page: Kent State and the Pulitzer Prize.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 2 (2): 67-74.

Yu, Roger. 2014. “Gruesome Photos from Tragedies Test Newsrooms.” USA Today, July 20. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/07/18/gruesome-photos-stir-newsroom-questions/12856305/.

Photo credit to Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times.


2 responses to ““Tears of the living”

  1. I agree 100%. I only wonder, as more bloggers and tweeters enter the breaking news game, if many traditional journalists trained in the journalistic ethics you talk about are no longer the ones choosing whether particular photos go up. As more bloggers and tweeters make the decisions of whether or not to post these pictures, there are a few questions. One, what journalistic training, or training in visual ethics, is directed at photographers active on social media and bloggers? Two, are too many traditional media organizations and newspapers now thinking, ‘well this picture was already posted to [blogs / Twitter]’… so they don’t feel as much moral obligation anymore to be the ‘gatekeeper’ of graphic images? Three, should more blogging networks be training their bloggers / photographers how to deal with decisions on graphic images?

    I saw pictures recently on Twitter and on my Facebook feed that made me almost sick. I instantly wanted to block these people – but they were either citizens or bloggers/tweeters probably not trained in journalistic ethics of informing vs. harm. And are places like Buzzfeed and other internet news sites taking into account journalistic ethics? Probably not as much as they should…

  2. Pingback: “Humanity Washed Up Ashore” | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

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