Use of graphic photos must be accompanied by ethical discussion

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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.

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In the wake of tragedies like Boston bombings, tread lightly on social media

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boston strong red sox

The phrase “Boston Strong” became prominent in the wake of the bombings. This is the Red Sox take on the saying.

The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, an event that became an international tragedy when three people were killed and dozens were injured, brought up a lot of ethical questions for journalists and companies in terms of what constitutes ethical behavior on social media.

It seems that ethics is in the eye of the beholder in both of the cases that Justin discussed this week in lecture: a news organization asking its Facebook fans to “like” a post about a recovering victim and Ford Motor Company posting a photo of two Ford emergency vehicles and thanking Boston first responders. (More information on those posts here.)

I’m sure both organizations only had the best intentions at heart when crafting these posts – I surely hope that is the case. There could be things that they did differently, however.

Perhaps the news organization didn’t need to tell people to “like” the post to wish the boy a speedy recovery. It is a widely stated fact that actually telling people what to do with a post (like, comment, share) gets more engagement on Facebook, so it’s likely the news organization was trying to engage their fans the way they probably always do. In this case though, the content pretty much speaks for itself and asking people to “like” probably wasn’t necessary.

Either way, the news organization and Ford Motor Company are darned if they do, darned if they don’t. Some people will see such posts as a show of solidarity with those experiencing the tragedy while others will see the brand as trying to cash in on tragedy. That’s exactly the kind of mixed response that Ford’s post got.

It’s funny though: Many experts and pundits say that “brands should be human” on social media. Yet when brands try to do this and have a human reaction to a horrific event along with the rest of us, they’re seen as trying to cash in rather than have a reaction. There seemed to be no great backlash from the general public when the Boston Red Sox rolled out their version of “Boston Strong” (logo shown above). Why was this show of solidarity acceptable while Ford’s was not? Both graphics featured the use of a well-known logo of a corporate entity.

I think there is no clear ethical answer here, unless a brand appears to be blatantly trying to use a tragedy to sell something. When brands create social media posts trying to empathize with a situation, even when they feel they are treading sensitively, it will just rub some people the wrong way. That shouldn’t stop them from trying but that is the main thing to remember – act with sensitivity, and run the post by as many people as possible.