Tag Archives: Boston Marathon bombings

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?


Social media lessons learned from the Boston Marathon bombings

On April 15, 2013, two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds. People across the country and even the world took to social media to express sympathy and hope for Boston as well as to report and weigh in on updates on the bombings suspects and circumstances.

A lot of unsubstantiated details were flying around in the hours and days after the bombing. News organizations felt the need to report updates on the bombing and its aftermath quickly, and some of them got it wrong.

For example, CNN reported that suspects had been arrested, before they actually had.

Less than an hour later, they tweeted a correction without erasing evidence of their mistake, which was the most ethical thing to do.

Unfortunately, the incorrect information was spread further than the correction. Notice the difference in the retweet counts.

So how do we fix a problem like that?  Justin Kings dreams of a day when Twitter will automatically retweet a correction through all accounts that retweeted the incorrect original. While that would be great for news organizations, I’m afraid some Twitter users might balk at the idea of having something like that automated.

Perhaps a less invasive way to achieve the same result would be for Twitter to show tweet with an official correction hashtag (perhaps only from verified news organizations?) in the newsfeed of every follower of all the accounts that retweeted the original — similarly to how they’d show a promoted tweet, except it could say corrected tweet. That way, they’re still getting the information to people who would have seen the incorrect version without automating anything to people’s accounts.

Another social media problem that arose after the bombings is brands attempting to capitalize on the tragedy. It’s hard to draw the line between appropriate reaction versus taking advantage. Social Media Today examines a post from Ford that perhaps inserts a little too much branding into their sympathy and a post from a local NBC station playing a little too much on emotion. I tend to agree with SMT on both of these examples; keeping it simpler would look more sincere and less desperate.