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?
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?