Virginia and the use of distressing images by news networks

Yesterday, a reporter and a cameraman were tragically shot dead while conducting a live television interview. In the hours that followed, disturbing and distressing images from both WDBJ7 and from the gunman himself soon flooded onto social media, in particular Twitter.

In this incident, some organisations such as CNN, faced some criticism online for their decision to broadcast, in full, footage of the shooting as captured by cameraman Adam Ward. In addition, although no TV news network chose to show the killer’s footage of the shooting, outrage was caused through decisions of some to share this on social media.

Journalists, when reporting tragic incidents such as this, often have to consider the balance between accurately reporting the horror of a story and the sensitivities of viewers at home.

The debate over where journalists should draw the line when dealing with disturbing images is far from new and has often occurred when tragic events have struck.

During the attacks of September 11th, news organisations broadcast live feeds from New York, which caught a second plane hitting one of the towers and the collapse of both towers of the World Trade Center. The repeated broadcast of the second attack was criticised by the First Lady of the United States Laura Bush, who called on parents to “try and protect your children from these pictures of destruction”.

More recently, Ofcom was forced to investigate Sky News, ITN and the BBC over showing graphic pre-watershed images of one of the killers of Lee Rigby confessing in an amateur video in 2013. Ofcom had received 680 complaints after some news organisations chose to show the footage, which showed the blooded hands of the killer holding a machete and making a series of political statements to the camera. Ofcom, in this instance, ruled that the images did not breach broadcasting guidelines, saying: “taking account of the right to freedom of expression, it is important for news programmes to be able to report freely on events which the broadcasters consider to be in the public interest”. However, they did issue new guidance on carrying further warnings when broadcasting such images.

Most broadcasters have a specific set of guidelines on their approach towards disturbing images, with the BBC making it clear that:

We must always balance the public interest in full and accurate reporting against the need to be compassionate and to avoid any unjustified infringement of privacy when we report accidents, disasters, disturbances, violence against individuals or war.

There are very few circumstances in which it is justified to broadcast the moment of death. It is always important to respect the privacy and dignity of the dead.

This ‘moral obligation’ is reflected in its reporting, with the BBC refusing to show the WDBJ7 footage in its entirety, refusing to broadcast the gunman’s film of the incident and, in the case of the recent Shoreham airshow crash, choosing to fade to black before the point of impact.

However, in its continued competition with social media, some media organisations make commercially-driven decisions to post more disturbing footage online to attract more views. Although this gives their audience the option to see more, sometimes the line can be overstepped, which was particularly true for Fox News in February this year. The editorial decision to post an unedited ISIS video of a Jordianian pilot being burned alive was severely criticised on social media as being in bad taste and disrespectful.

The same was true for CBS and their show 60 Minutes, who made the decision to broadcast footage of a 2013 sarin gas attack in Damascus. However, reporter Scott Pelley defended the broadcast, saying: “If you don’t see it, I don’t believe the impact truly hits you. Even though people will be disturbed by what they see, it has to be seen. What would’ve happened during the Holocaust if all the Jews had cellphones? Certainly the world would’ve found out much sooner what was happening”.

In summary, the public want to see a version of the truth, one which is acceptable in the living room. It is therefore the role of the journalist to collate images and video of an incident and present these responsibly to their audience. Whilst distressing images are sometimes necessary to convey the tragedy of a story such as this, news networks mustn’t pander to sensationalism and broadcast scenes that are too inappropriate or disturbing.

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