On November 13, 2015 Paris police asked reporters not to film the operation to rescue hostages from inside the Bataclan concert hall. The following week, on November 22, all Belgian media ceased to broadcast information or images of security operations ongoing in the country, after the police asked the media to cooperate with the secrecy of the task to find terrorists linked to the Paris attacks. At the time, all this reminded us of a particular dilemma in journalism: what to show to the audience, and in what circumstances to show it.
This is a debate which is as relevant now as it was in November, as it was early last year – when media outlets at the University of Manchester Students’ Union made the call not to show a cover of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which depicted the prophet Mohammad –, as it was many decades ago. Throughout history, there have been images that have motivated change in society, policy and public perception. A large number of these images, which can appear in the form of photography or video, can be found to be disturbing, insensitive or horrendous by some. When they are used in the mainstream media, we can say “shock journalism” is being used.
There is an obvious ease of accessibility to these types of images online even though traditional media outlets such as the BBC or ITV may not broadcast them. So should the media show us these images despite the accessibility on other media outlets such as LiveLeak (whose tagline is appropriately “Redefining the media”) or YouTube?
You hear the newsreader say before a news report that “this report may contain some images you might find disturbing” and then you could have seen a video of houses that have been bombed, or a mother crying in the street over a lost child in a famine-ridden area. The question is then whether the media should be showing us a mother crying over a lost child or, for example, the child’s body itself.
“If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?”, read a headline of The Independent on September 22 last year. It was referencing a series of photos of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a young boy who washed up on a Turkish beach near Bodrum on September 2, 2015. The “powerful images” were seen as a critical point in the European response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the public outcry for the British Government to do more. Two days later, Mr Cameron announced that “We will do more, providing resettlement for thousands more Syrian refugees”.
But what if the picture had never been shown to us? What if newspapers and news programmes had censored the image and instead described it to the audience verbally? Would it have had the same impact on us, as if we had seen the photo of the child’s lifeless body? Displaying graphic images designed to shock can make people more aware of the situation they are being told about – for example, the picture of Aylan made the refugee crisis ‘sink in’ for a lot of people and it really brought home the extent to which families were willing to escape from their homeland.
If this was the case with the refugee crisis, then it appears that if the public were shown more graphic or explicit images of war-torn areas, migration crises, famines, or school shootings, then they would be more likely to do something about it.
A different argument concerns broadcasting disturbing imagery when the creator of the content had that in mind already. In October 2014, The Independent, which had printed the image of Aylan Kurdi, opted not to show images of the killing of Alan Henning, a humanitarian aid worker, by ISIL. The newspaper’s front page after the images emerged read: “He was killed, on camera, for the sole purpose of propaganda. Here is the news, not the propaganda.”
A similar scenario came up in August 2015, when journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were shot dead live on American television by an ex-colleague who filmed the incident on his phone. The killer then proceeded to upload the video to Facebook and Tweeted about the crime which he had just committed.
The point of whether the clip should be shown was debated on BBC’s Newsnight and in other channels worldwide. Not only was this discussed because of its graphic nature, but also because it was argued that Mr Flanagan’s intention by filming it was for the video to be broadcast and scare – therefore showing the clip on the news was appeasing him and enabling the fear he created to spread. British media split between showing a portion of the video which did not include the actual murder, showing just screenshots of the video or not showing anything at all. On the other hand, the full video was available through social media and other smaller news websites almost instantly.
A problem when certain shocking images are found on online news outlets that are not part of the mainstream media – sometimes smaller independent online publications, like THE MANCHESTER MAGAZINE – is that when reporting a story, given the fact that their reputation may not be well-known, the entities are more susceptible to criticism for sensationalism. It is assumed that quality media outlets generally try and be as least sensational as possible; they want news broadcasting to be sensible, delicate, unbiased and restrained as part of their professional persona. But that is clearly not always the case. Sensationalism is, to a large extent, subjective. And being biased is not necessarily complementary to being sensationalist.
There is a strong case to say the public should be shown most images, even if rather shocking, but also that these should be shown after the so-called ‘watershed’ time in order to protect young children. Decency is a factor in this debate. Imagine sitting down for your evening meal with the television on at home and suddenly seeing images of dead bodies, or a clip of a news reporter being shot on live TV. Showing those images is neither decent nor fair, especially if there are also younger watchers present.
Shock journalism should be encouraged only to appropriate audiences, such as ten o’clock news or Newsnight. Though this is already done to a small extent, it would be good to see all news outlets doing so consistently. Regarding print journalism, this could be done by censoring front pages and putting the actual uncensored shocking content inside. A similar approach could be taken by quality online papers, by not using shocking imagery as a leading image – the image that is shown when a particular article is shared on social media – but instead showing it only further down the page.
Journalism is the collection, selection, analysis and distribution of information which is relevant to an audience. It has the profound capability of informing and influencing the public debate on a range of pressing issues and journalists are trained professionals who are able to discern what is relevant from what is not. Therefore, if an image or video is relevant to the public, then we have the right to see it and know precisely what is happening. It is not because the images might be shocking that mainstream media outlets should refrain from presenting them to the public. TMM