Posting Photos of Dead Children Could Backfire

What can the press do to help stop mass shootings? This question haunts many journalists who struggle in the ritual cycle of news coverage that has become all too familiar after a massacre. The publication of photographs showing the gruesome spectacle of slaughtered children is the latest response from those seeking to urge the public and politicians to act.

Former UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Dean Ed Wasserman argue that the media, for reasons of taste and decency, unknowingly “hide photos of the dead from the public”, a practice he said should change. the old Seattle Times editor David Boardman, now dean of the Temple University School of Journalism, agrees, but adds that it should only be done “with the permission of a surviving relative”.

The reality, in my experience, is not that simple.

There is no doubt that we can cite photographs that have changed public opinion. Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer whose extraordinary “Napalm Girl” photo helped build support for an end to the Vietnam War, recently wrote a powerful piece in The Washington Post, entitled “A single photo can change the world. I know because I took one that did. I believe he is right.

Terrified children run after a napalm airstrike in Vietnam, June 8, 1972. The image bears witness to the effects of war but has also sparked controversy over the years. (Nick Ut/AP)

But as someone who has thought deeply about how to cover school shootings since 12 students and a teacher were killed at Columbine High School when I was editor of Denver’s Rocky Mountain NewsI have a different answer.

Before I explain, let me note that I come to my point as someone who chose to post a haunting image of a dead student lying on the sidewalk in front of the school, a soda of a can he had dropped flowing near him, while other students crouched behind a car next to a policeman, his gun pointed at the school. A photo that made headlines beyond Colorado and which we published in large and full color in our newspaper the day after the shooting. A photo that I did not seek the permission of the surviving parents to publish. A photo that seemed essential to tell the terrible story of that day. A photo that we thought, or at least fervently hoped, would help prevent the same horror from happening again.

of our staff Pictures of the Columbine tragedy won the Pulitzer Prize for News Photography. The unforgettable front-page photo of two grieving students we ran to the morning after the shooting is on the wall in front of me as I write. I feel like I live with this day every day, and especially on mass shooting days. Maybe one day some editors will have an even more powerful photo of a dead child than the one we published that will finally make a difference.

High school students and police hide behind a car, a dead boy lies on a path
Students and police hide behind a car as the body of Daniel Rohrbough lies on the sidewalk after two students attacked Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. (Rocky Mountain News, Rodolfo Gonzalez; AP)

But in the meantime, it’s important to recognize that editors can’t post photos they don’t have. My experience is that the police always try to control crime scenes and do their best to keep photographers away. And if the scene of the carnage is outside a building, they try to keep the photojournalists out of sight. Photographers can only show you what they can see themselves, unlike journalists, who can recreate scenes from the testimony of others.

To capture the kind of images that some would like to see published, photojournalists should either be allowed to enter the scene of the crime – unthinkable for many reasons, in my experience – or arrive at the scene of a shooting before the police. This rarely happens. It only happened once that I can remember, in my 11 years as editor of the Rocky, and we also published this great photo on the front page. It showed the body of a gunman on the floor of a large empty hallway in the Colorado capital, where he had gone to try to kill the governor.

Once the bodies of the victims of the mass shooting have been returned to their families, it is hard to imagine that a parent of a murdered child would be able to decide whether to allow the taking and publication of a photo, what we might call Emmett Till’s coffin moment, in their time of mourning. Even if a parent agreed to such a thing at the time, journalists should weigh the ethics of asking someone to make such a decision. My experience is that parents want their child’s last memory to be in life, not in death.

The mother of the boy I showed dead on a sidewalk was understandably angry at first, although later she came to believe that the decision to post the image had been correct. Long after Columbine, I finally received crime scene photos from the floor of the school-library massacre. They arrived in a brown envelope with no explanation. However, these photos showed the bloody deaths of the perpetrators, not their victims. And I chose never to make them public.

My take is that publishers generally don’t hold back images that might inspire the public to take action. They just don’t have them, although some try to get them. If they did, I’m sure some would post them, like I did. But I’m afraid it’s a decision that could backfire on you. I saw how Columbine seemed to break down a barrier for other killers with similar tendencies. I fear that making photos of devastated children public will motivate others to see the damage they can cause, normalize unimaginable violence, and be used in hateful ways, against the families of the dead, or as a threat to others. I would rather look for photographs that won’t make people turn away, that will hold their gaze.

In the meantime, the most important thing journalists can do is focus on the factors that will help us as a nation understand what could have been done to stop the bloodshed before it happened. and how we might change as people and as a society to prevent such shootings from happening.

The fundamental job of journalists when things go wrong is to answer questions of accountability: what did we know and when did we know it? What could have been done and how should we act differently based on what we learned? Of course, that includes challenging existing gun laws. But not just gun laws.

If the press shows where an opportunity to stop the violence has been missed, it can help each of us be a better brother’s guardian. We can learn the value of showing our loyalty to the greater good, rather than turning a blind eye to the harm someone we met or loved might do. But we can only do this if journalists have helped us to understand the signs of possible violence, the risk factors to be taken seriously. If people know what to worry about and how best to react, then they can act differently. They can take steps to prevent violence.

It can start with seemingly small things. Randy Brown, a Columbine parent at the time of the shooting and a voice of conscience for accountability after the massacre, wrote to me recently about the factors he believes make a person a school shooter: bullying , humiliation, violence. We can all wonder if we did enough to stop these things when we saw them. With the help of journalists, we as family members, friends, neighbours, colleagues, teachers, police officers can be more alert to danger signs. We can find the courage to intervene. We can be more loving, caring, and kind.

No, embracing these values ​​won’t have the obvious hammer blow of powerful photography, but taken together, by many, they will change the world for the better. And we know journalism can lay the groundwork for that change.

For this, difficult reports are needed, just like the sometimes heartbreaking work of photographers. The police, schools and other institutions do not like to be held responsible. They often go around the cars, like they did at Columbine. But if journalists relentlessly pursue the path of accountability, rather than seeking a one-size-fits-all, sensational solution, they are more likely to make the world a safer place for us all.

About Julius Southworth

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