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Calls to Publish Graphic Images of Mass Violence Are Misguided. Here’s What We Need Instead.

  • Saneeha Mirza
Person holding a newspaper

Documenting wrongdoing is critical, but powerful imagery on its own is not a guarantor of social change. When journalists contemplate what images to pair with reporting on violence, they must take our evolving media environment into account. In this post from PHI’s Berkeley Media Studies Group, author Saneeha Mirza shares promising practices from reporters and other sources on how to cover mass shootings in ways that don’t glorify the shooter or amplify the ideologies that motivate them. 

When 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally lynched, his mother Mamie moved fast to ensure that images of what the assailants had done to her son would be plastered across the pages in Jet magazine and widely broadcast on television screens. She made sure that no one could turn a blind eye to the horror of racist violence facing Black boys and men.

Now, people are asking if the media need to take a similar approach and publish graphic images that show the aftermath of the Uvalde mass shooting. Some editors and journalism school deans have argued we should. Their arguments and concerns are valid; after all, documenting wrongdoing, unblinkingly, is important. And images provide a powerful way to do so, as when Mamie Till’s bold decision ignited anger and action. However, our media atmosphere has changed since then.

In today’s always-on news environment, graphic images do not carry the same weight that they once did — and certainly not in the way that journalism editors often hope they will. Videos depicting police brutality and shootings have long been readily available on social media, even as the act is occurring, often thanks to the assailant. For example, in the 2019 Christchurch Mosque Shootings, the attacker used Facebook to livestream the attack as he carried it out. The Christchurch shooter’s widely circulated intentions and recordings of the attack reportedly inspired the massacre in Buffalo. Graphic images tend to spark outrage and upset from people who are already sympathetic, but I have seen little action from those in positions of power. Without the latter, publishing such images proves fruitless.

“The children and adults who were murdered in the Uvalde shooting deserve better than to be used for shock value; they deserve intentional reporting and policy solutions.”

As a native of Pakistan, where media outlets are less restrained in publishing images of graphic violence, I know firsthand the limitations of such visuals. Images that would otherwise only be found in the darker corners of the web are readily available on television and print news, and violent videos are shared casually to group chats. Just this month, pictures of a recently deceased television personality spread as fast as news of his demise; rather than spur strong emotions or a desire for action, such images have simply desensitized people to the point where they seem almost no different from pictures of living people. Overwhelmed by an onslaught of graphic imagery, we’ve become numb to the horror.

We’re quick to forget that our own American media also have had a long history of publishing graphic and disturbing images. While they spurred movements for social change, photos of the Kent State shootings didn’t stop violence among law enforcement, and horrifying pictures the My Lai Massacre didn’t slow atrocities at the hands of our own Armed Forces abroad. Emmett Till’s murderers were found not guilty. Powerful imagery on its own is not the panacea or guarantor of social change.

It is all too optimistic to think that publishing such distressing images will drive the right lawmakers to take action to ensure that nothing like Uvalde happens again. This is a hopeful but naive assumption; if news of children being killed in a place where they should be safe is not enough for immediate action, if heartbreaking testimonies from survivors and parents who now have empty homes is not enough, then why would images be different? If the fact that gun violence is now the leading cause of death for American children isn’t enough to make policymakers push for comprehensive background checks and limit high-capacity magazines, is it too hopeful to think pictures will somehow cause politicians to break the grip that the NRA has on elected officials?

Our politicians already know gun violence is an issue; they see it in the news and on their Twitter feeds, just like us. They visit crime scenes and meet with victims families’ — they experience the aftermath in a much more tangible way than just a 2D image. The only guaranteed outcome of publishing such photos is to retraumatize the victims’ loved ones, along with everyone else who has been vicariously traumatized by continual acts of gun violence.

The children and adults who were murdered in the Uvalde shooting deserve better than to be used for shock value; they deserve intentional reporting and policy solutions. They deserve to be remembered for who they were and not just how they died. As journalists, it’s important to question calls to show graphic violence, images of slain children at that, and ask ourselves: Who does this target? Could this actually accomplish our end goal?

More journalists are publishing guides including promising practices for covering mass shootings in ways that don’t glorify the shooter or amplify the harmful, hateful ideologies that motivate them. Some tips include: Build audiences’ trust by ensuring that all data points and definitions related to guns and gun violence are accurate; avoid polarizing narratives; and be conscious of tone and terms used. When discussing gun policy, approach reporting from an asset-based, not weakness-based, perspective and remind readers that more than half of U.S. residents, gun owners included, want to strengthen gun laws. Finally, expand the frame beyond individual tragedies to show how mass shootings, which comprise only a fraction of all firearm deaths, are connected to the broader issue of gun violence; doing so helps readers more clearly see the need for systemic solutions that go beyond individual behavior.

On the question of the use of images, pictures can have impact without being graphic; take for example, a sobering image of the shoes worn by an Uvalde victim, or a stunning display of social math in which 45,000 flowers were placed in front of the National Mall to represent every life lost to gun violence in 2020. Elevating action is also an important tool: The speeches given by Parkland survivors inspired protests from coast to coast. Reporters should continue to document acts of resistance and resilience.

As BMSG’s communication manager, Heather Gehlert, explained, “Connecting to audiences and evoking empathy is critical, but graphic photos aren’t the way to go about it. We can connect through stories from survivors, and we can foster dialogue without using approaches that have the potential to retraumatize people and exploit their pain.”

Originally published by Berkeley Media Studies Group


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