Before a news organization decides to post or publish graphic images, an ethical discussion must be had by management and staff.

Before a news organization decides to post or publish graphic images, an ethical discussion must be had by management and staff.

For a news organization, the challenge in covering a natural disaster, a horrific attack like the Boston Marathon bombing or a crime scene is the potential for graphic images.

Care must be taken when airing, publishing and especially, sharing such images on social media. I have faced this issue when covering breaking news myself.

At a past job, while off-duty and running errands, I happened upon the scene of a terrible crash before anyone at my news organization got there. A woman who (thankfully) appeared to be conscious was being taken out of a vehicle by emergency personnel. Out of respect for her, her family who may see the photo and people who may be upset by the photo, I took cellphone pictures showing different angles of the crash where she could not be seen.

I felt ethically, this was the right thing to do, because what if the worst had happened and she passed away? I know if that was my family member, I would not want that photo to be how I remembered them. After seeing the wreckage and taking the photos, I was pretty shaken myself, so I knew I made the right decision.

A lot of these decisions have to be made “in the moment,” and a journalist must use their best news judgement, as I didn’t have my news managers there with me approving each photo. When I got to work later that day, most of my co-workers told me I made the right call.

Even though the person at the scene taking the pictures has to make an on-the-spot decision, it is still a team effort in making the decision to use potentially graphic photos. For example, if I had taken photos where the woman was visible, it would be up to producers and managers back in house to decide if the photo could be used on air or online. Just because a news photographer takes several photos, it doesn’t make them all fit to print, publish or air.

Sometimes, like in cases of the Boston bombing or even with the 2010 Haiti earthquake, some news organizations do make the decision to use graphic photos because they believe that it tells another part of the story, like Miami Herald photo editor David Walters told the American Journalism Review in 2010:

“Some people, both readers and journalists, find some of the images from Haiti to be gut-wrenching and undignified. These graphic, hard-hitting photos always spawn debate in our newsroom..careful debate. But the fact remains that the devastation in Haiti is gut-wrenching and in many instances, tragic circumstances have stripped away the dignity of victims who were so mercilessly affected by this disaster. That part of the story must be acknowledged in both words and pictures or the story is incomplete.”

There are always going to be readers, viewers and journalists who may not agree on the final decision of “to use or not to use” graphic photos, but there’s one thing that Walters brings up that is clear: An ethical discussion must be had by staff before deciding to socially share, air or publish such photos.