Letter from the editor: why we sometimes publish graphic photographs

Years ago, the editors of The Oregonian had a vigorous and moving debate over whether to publish a photograph showing the charred remains of American contractors hanging from a bridge west of Baghdad as Iraqis were celebrating.

We ended up publishing the gruesome photo, in which the victims were barely recognizable as human bodies.

I sometimes used this photograph to train other journalists in ethical decision-making. Photographs are good topics for these discussions because the debate usually starts quite simply: would you post the photo or not?

The advent of digital journalism gives newsrooms unlimited space for additional photos, rather than the traditional one or two in print, and enables video. Decisions about visual journalism multiply with the options.

I thought about this issue recently when I received a complaint from a reader about a photo we posted on OregonLive after a police shooting.

It was the photograph that aroused the concern of readers. Editors and the photographer discussed the photograph before it was published as it includes a glimpse of the man’s body after he was killed by police. Dave Killen / The Oregonian

“It is absolutely appalling that you are posting an image of the suspect lying dead on the road without any blurring,” the reader said. “He may have been wrong, but no human deserves to have an image of their dead body on the street shared for the whole world to see.”

Were we right to publish the photo? I think so, but it’s a decision that reasonable people can disagree on.

The question of whether to publish is actually only the first question. Publishers may choose other means to mitigate the effect of offensive images or graphics. In the case of Iraq, we published the photograph on an inside page, rather than on the front page. It ran in black and white, rather than color. And we’ve printed an editor’s note in the caption explaining our decision.

Selective editing or cropping of photos is a remedy in some situations. On websites, you can also warn readers and make them click affirmatively on graphical content.

Of course, many of history’s most striking and memorable photographs should be seen widely. The photos changed public opinion on important issues and opened eyes to the brutality.

When you have a journalistic purpose for such images, publication is at the heart of our information mission to reveal the truth. Think of the photo of an anguished young woman kneeling next to a dead protester at Kent State University in 1970, or Nick Ut’s photo of a Vietnamese woman stricken with napalm in 1972.

Many of us have seen the video of George Floyd dying slowly and excruciatingly on the sidewalk under the weight of a police officer. For some, it’s too hard to watch.

Through cell phones, police body cameras, home security systems and other recordings, we have all been exposed to so many more graphic images of death and violence. I think our tolerance has changed over time, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Several years ago, when I was talking about the photo of the bridge, a student journalist challenged my thinking. I would definitely post this photo, she said. Our generation can find any image with a click. Journalists no longer decide on our behalf.

Despite the veracity of the statement of the university reporter – yes, we are now being bombarded with deadly filmed shootings – we still take these issues seriously.

We might wonder if the media value of the image outweighs any potential harm. What is our journalistic objective in publishing the image? Can we explain the purpose to the readers? If we publish, can we mitigate any possible harm, perhaps with a warning label?

In the event that the reader has objected, I have deemed publication appropriate. The fatal shooting by a police officer on Interstate 5 was an important local story and a very public event. The photograph that showed the man’s body was at the back of the gallery, not the main image or highlighted in any way, and was at a distance.

Dave Killen, the veteran multimedia reporter who took the freeway photo, said those questions were on his mind at the scene. “I tried several different things…framing so that only the feet were showing, focusing on the highway divider instead of the body to keep the man in focus, and of course taking a lot of images that didn’t include the body at all,” he said. “I was also in a real-time chat with editors while I was still on location.”

From experience, we know that readers react more emotionally to victims close to home than to victims far away. We also know that showing faces, blood and other close-up details is more disturbing to readers than a distant shot of a body under a blanket.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve photographed a corpse, and I’m sure it won’t be the last,” Killen said, “so the question of what we’ll be comfortable with use is still relevant in the back of my mind.

What do you think? Are newsrooms too wary of such footage, given the proliferation of dash cams and cellphone video? Does protecting society from violent images do more harm than good?

I appreciate the thoughtful conversations I have with many of you on these and other important journalistic issues.