Human carnage is inevitable in wars and plane crashes. But just how eager are we to observe it up close?
The age-old dilemma for photojournalists and editors resurfaced this week with all its layered issues in reactions to gruesome photos from the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 wreckage in Ukraine and a bombing at a Gaza city beach.
Not-for-the-squeamish photos from the scene by major news agencies, including The Associated Press, Reuters and the Agence France-Presse, were widely circulated to their customers and readily available online. The tough decision was which ones to display.
Every news organization "has a standard. But it's more of a cultural norm rather than straight journalistic protocol," says Nina Berman, a photography professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "You don't want pictures to be a horror movie. You want it to be storytelling. It should provide some evidentiary purpose."
To be sure, editorial decisions made in newsrooms to document an important event vs. gratuitous displays aimed at generating online clicks can seem like a fine line. And the two tragedies this week – and how some news organizations chose to cover them – are a reminder of this delicate dance.
The New York Times ran a photo by staffer Tyler Hicks – of a Palestinian man carrying the dead body of a boy while another dead boy lay on the beach sand – on the front page Thursday, but chose not to run images of the mangled bodies and human limbs from the wreckage in Ukraine.
Other news organizations, including USA TODAY, ran similar photos from Gaza but similarly refrained from showcasing gruesome photos from the plane crash site. Several news organizations, including The Huffington Post and Business Insider, ran photos showing corpses strewn in the flight wreckage.
"The question is, does showing a dead body serve a purpose in the journalistic mission," says Sean Elliot, chair of the ethics committee of the National Press Photographers Association. "An airplane comes out the sky at 30,000 feet in the air, and there's going to be a lot of dead bodies. You may not need a confirmation. In a military attack in Gaza, it's not certain that there would be a dead body. (The photo) is a reporting of fact."
In a statement, Whitney Snyder, executive news editor of TheHuffington Post, said the photos were posted with a warning statement about the graphic nature and after considering respect for the victims and "the public's right to understand what has happened."
"Our job is to deliver the news. And in the case of an international tragedy, we have a responsibility not to shy away from the real human toll," she said. "We respect (readers') decision whether or not to look."
Of course, photographers in war zones and crash sites are hardly a shy lot, and some of their finest and bravest works have won Pulitzer Prizes and swayed public policy.
While American readers – particularly of small newspapers – can be sensitive to graphic photos, news organizations must carry on their responsibility to avoid "sugar-coating," Berman says. "Is that (photo) really important in adding value to the story? With each story, you have to ask 'does this story really advance in a deeper way by the photo'?"
"The Falling Man" photo from the 9/11 attacks (by AP photographer Richard Drew of a man falling from the North Tower of the World Trade Center), however horrific, "spoke to the people up in the towers and the loneliness of death," she says.
Eddie Adams won a Pulitzer for the AP with a photo showing a South Vietnamese police chief executing a handcuffed Vietcong prisoner. His photo – along with another Pulitzer-winning picture by AP photographer Nick Ut that depicted a naked girl fleeing from a napalm attack – helped fan public opinion against the Vietnam War.
Editorial decisions are also moved by geography, says Ken Light, a photographer who teaches photojournalism at the University of California, Berkeley. One of the unspoken modes of U.S. news photo desks is that graphic photos of destruction abroad are more tolerated than domestic tragedies, Light says. "If it was an event in the U.S., editors tend to be more sensitive to that. We can look at (photos from abroad) and say 'It's not our world.' It's disconnected. They're the other."
Social media throws a complex variable to the mix. It's so much easier to share photos on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, often without a proper editorial context or attribution. Hicks' photo displayed above the accompanying story in the Times is unmistakable. Unsourced photos in social media can all too easily become fodder for voyeurism.
"The general increase in the number of images and instantaneous transmission raises the bar for photojournalists to make (pictures) evocative, poetic and informative," Berman says. "There's so much garbage anywhere."