Graphic photos: Do they tell the story or just aim to shock?

Graphic photos are everywhere online. If you look hard enough (or really not very hard at all) you can find news organizations or bloggers or social media users who have posted photographs showing the bloody, the injured, the gross. Perhaps some publish to shock; others claim they’re pursuing honesty. So what’s the ethical thing to do?

A little warning can go a long way. (Warning: There are no actual graphic photos on this blog post.)
A little warning can go a long way. (Warning: There are no actual graphic photos on this blog post.)

Like most questions of ethics, there’s not a clear-cut answer. After the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, I saw a number of graphic photos on social media and on news websites. Some photos seemed like they had better intentions behind them than others.

1. Tone matters.

News of the bombings was a case in which tone was perhaps even more important than normal. A post with lots of capital letters and exclamation points doesn’t seem as sincere as a post with either straightforward facts or an authentic statement — even if all of the above were accompanied by the same photo. The Boston bombings was not a time to revel in the shock or gore of what happened.

2. Minimize altering of photos.

It seemed media couldn’t quite decide how to best handle the graphic photos from the bombings near the finish line. Some used the original and unaltered photos, while others left some blood in the frame but cropped out the actual wounds. One news organization, The Daily News of New York, actually edited a photo to digitally cover up a wound on a victim’s leg. Most news organizations would probably agree that altering photos to actually change their content is not OK, while cropping is generally acceptable. Photography is one of the most straightforward ways we can communicate something that happened; we need to keep it honest.

3. Let the user decide.

I think the decision to publish graphic photos is up to the particular organization. But I will say, as a user, I prefer to make my own decision whether to view said photos. A photo of a gaping wound or missing limb is not something I expect or want to see when I open up my Facebook or Twitter newsfeed. Although I might sometimes still choose to view such content, I’d rather see something less graphic on social media with the option to see more if I want.

Similarly, if a news website is going to publish graphic photos on their website, I think they should start the gallery with a graphic content warning and let the reader decide if they want to open it or not. I’ve even seen a graphic photo darkened or blurred with the option to click to see the graphic photo; that’s another good way to leave the option in readers’ hands.

How do you feel about graphic photos — on social media or elsewhere?

What would you add to or change about my ethical checklist?


6 thoughts on “Graphic photos: Do they tell the story or just aim to shock?”

  1. I would add in the consent of the photographed. I wrote in my blog that making someone the face of the tragedy without their consent is unethical and unfair. What about PTSD? The photo can serve as a trigger for the rest of their lives. I think written consent should be attained by the injured victim/subject of the graphic image in these sorts of cases.

    1. That’s a good point. Legally, a Boston bombing victim’s photo can be used because it was taken in a public place, but it is a good idea to try to obtain consent from the severely injured if they’re the focal point of a photo. However, talking to a victim before they’re whisked off by emergency workers (and I would hope it’s always quickly!) is not always going to be possible. And written consent could take time to get, perhaps past the time of interest in the photos.

  2. I agree! I really wish media outlets would cover photos/provide disclaimers and give readers the option to click forward or not. I’m still sick over something I saw earlier in the week, and while the article was informative the photo made my skin crawl! It will be a long time before I click on that site again…and I don’t think the goal is to turn readers off.

    1. Exactly! When I see something graphic by accident because a media account posted it out in the open, it makes me think twice about clicking through to their content in the future. It’s part of building trust!

  3. Julie,

    Great post! I your 3 tips for posting graphic photographs, and really think that more people could gain from their stories and photos if they took these into consideration.

    At the end of the day, I think that graphic photography is going to happen. And sadly, it is not always going to be tasteful, and there is a decent chance it’s going to have the shock factor that someone wants to go with their story. It will end up in our newsfeed, on the news, or on a news station’s digital or physical paper. I think the key is keeping it tasteful, and making sure that the photo is relevant to the story. Showing a picture of a victim from the Boston bombings with no leg and having no story to go with it is tasteless. Having a story as to what happened and following it up makes sense. I’m not convinced I fully agreed it was necessary to tell the story, but I understand what they were doing when they had it happen.

    I think both of the ideas already thrown out are good ones on what we can add to your checklist– I think a disclaimer letting your readers/viewers know that the photograph is graphic would make a world of difference. In a world where we’ve become so spoiler conscious, it would give your viewers/readers the option to decide what they want to do next.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I agree that a disclaimer would make a big difference. You can’t really get offended by a photo after you make the choice to click through to see a graphic photo that is labeled as such.

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