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‘Show the bodies’: Mass shootings spark media debate on gory photos

A body is taken from the scene of a mass shooting at a July Fourth parade in Highland Park, Ill. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/AP)
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When Chicago Sun-Times editor Jennifer Kho saw the photos last week, her first thought was, “Oh, my God, we can’t run these.” They showed carnage and chaos: Victims of the July Fourth parade shooting in Highland Park, Ill., lay sprawled on sidewalks and streets, blood pouring from jagged wounds caused by a person armed with a high-powered rifle.

The images left Kho facing an old newsroom dilemma: Should they be published?

On one hand, the photos — taken by veteran reporter Lynn Sweet, who happened to be at the parade during the attack — were clearly newsworthy: graphic evidence of a mass shooting in the Sun-Times’s backyard. But Kho also knew publishing them could upset victims’ families or offend readers who aren’t used to seeing gruesome images in a mainstream publication, or be seen as exploitation.

The Sun-Times ultimately published just one of Sweet’s photos on its website; it shows a victim covered by a blanket, except for one hand, with blood flowing from the body down the steps of a plaza. The newspaper waited until the victims’ families had been informed of their deaths and placed the photo behind a screen that warned viewers before they clicked through: “This image is graphic and disturbing. … Please consider the potential for trauma and exercise caution and self-care in deciding whether to view it.” Kho decided to withhold the photo from the print newspaper so readers wouldn’t stumble across it.

“I felt like [the photo] told the story in a way that was hard to capture in other ways,” she told The Washington Post. “I’m never going to forget that picture. I wondered if it would make people see the reality of what happened.”

Even with its caveats and cautions, the Sun-Times’s decision to publish the photo was unusual. Graphic images of violent-crime victims are rarely published or aired by mainstream news outlets in the United States; few will show blood or a victim’s face. But amid an epidemic of mass shootings, some journalists argue that traditional notions of restraint amount to an evasion of journalists’ responsibility to depict reality.

“We cannot sanitize these killings,” tweeted Nancy Barnes, NPR’s senior vice president for news, after 19 children and two adults were killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., in May. “That in and of itself is an editorial decision.”

“Show the bodies,” journalism dean David Boardman and interim medical-school dean Amy Goldberg of Temple University urged in a Philadelphia Inquirer column last month. “Put on display — in newspapers, on television, across the internet — a photograph or three that can, finally, help the American public understand exactly what happens when a weapon designed for modern warfare is unleashed on innocent, unarmed people. Like a 10-year-old at school.”

Even in an age of ubiquitous cellphone cameras, photos such as Sweet’s aren’t typically available to the press after a mass shooting. News photographers often don’t arrive until after police have locked down the scene of the attack. Security cameras and police crime-scene photos provide a record of the gory aftermath, but authorities often withhold this imagery from the public for long periods, reducing its news value.

Even when journalists do obtain images from mass shootings, they tend to withhold the most disturbing details. After an attacker killed 60 people and wounded more than 400 at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas in 2017 — the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history — the Las Vegas Review-Journal mainly highlighted images of grieving survivors and police, not blood and bodies. And when the Austin American-Statesman’s website published surveillance footage this week from the Uvalde, Tex., massacre, an on-screen note advised that “the sound of children screaming has been removed.”

“As a general practice, we avoid publishing graphically violent images,” said Leroy Chapman Jr., managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We do that out of respect to the victims of violence and out of respect to our readers.” In rare cases when the newspaper breaks from that tradition, it warns readers in big, bold text before they scroll across something graphic.

Day-to-day decisions about which photos to publish “are a moving target,” said David Ake, director of photography for the Associated Press, one of the world’s largest distributors of news photos. “One day, we might [distribute] something that we wouldn’t on another day. There are no super hard and fast rules.”

News organizations have wrestled with questions about publishing violent images as far back as the Civil War, when photos of the dead at the Battle of Antietam both shocked and fascinated the public. But the modern media also knows the power of a horrific image.

Jet magazine’s photos of the mutilated body of a Black 14-year-old, Emmett Till, helped energize the civil rights movement in the 1950s. (Till’s mother explicitly solicited the photos.) Photos of death and trauma galvanized public opposition to the Vietnam War. Photos of a dead Syrian child on a beach in Greece and of a girl who died trying to cross the Rio Grande in Texas with her father brought international attention to the plight of migrants. Video of the murder of George Floyd led to worldwide protests against police violence, and widely published images of Russian atrocities in Ukraine elicited worldwide condemnation.

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News editors should avoid creating “a sadistic image culture” that desensitizes readers and viewers, exploits victims and re-traumatizes survivors, said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a think tank specializing in media coverage of conflict and tragedy. Often, other kinds of reporting can be more effective, he said. He suggested journalists ask themselves, “Is blood the only way to jolt the public conscience?”

In fact, it’s impossible for any journalist to know what impact a disturbing image will have on the public. Would showing the devastating effects of an assault weapon on a fourth-grader’s body alter the debate about gun ownership or merely repel people? Could publishing such photos even inspire new attacks?

The decisions often depend on the nature of the victims. Many U.S. news outlets ran photos of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s public assassination over the weekend. But most crime victims aren’t public figures; they’re almost always individuals known only to a small circle of people, raising significant privacy expectations for a news organization. Alarmed by the possibility that photos of the Sandy Hook murders in 2012 would be published over the wishes of victims’ family members, the state of Connecticut passed a law sealing all official photos and documents of homicide victims.

The reaction among Sun-Times readers to Sweet’s photo last week was generally muted, according to Kho. A few criticized the paper for an “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality, she said. But others were more favorable. One wrote, “ ‘Thanks for being courageous’ ” in showing the reality of what happened, Kho said.

The Sun-Times wasn’t the only news outlet to publish a graphic image from the July 4 shooting, which left seven dead and more than 30 people wounded. The journalist Irv Leavitt published a photo in his Substack column last week showing an older man on the ground, felled by a massive head wound, as first responders worked frantically around him.

“I believe that publishing this photo may be a sin,” Leavitt wrote. “But the greater sin is the crime it depicts. And standing by as that crime is replicated, that’s a sin, too.”