Most of the photographs we see from news organizations on a daily basis are not controversial. Photographs of politicians, ribbon-cuttings, pleasures of daily life or moments in sports events don’t generally require soul-searching discussions in the newsrooms or incite the ire of the viewing public.
Then there are the handful of others.
The Atlantic has recently published an article about a photograph from the 1991 Gulf War that US news organizations didn’t publish. The decision, according to the article, was not based on military control but because of editorial choice. The photograph is of the type that make editors stop and that generate newsroom discussions about whether the content is too graphic or the moment too personal to publish. They are the photographs that generate discussions weighing whether the public needs to see the image to get the idea.
It’s an old discussion, dating back to the beginnings of publishing photographs in newspapers and magazines. In wartime, photographers might be restricted from areas where such photographs might be made. Or the photographs might be censored for fear of disrupting support until, like George Strock’s 1943 photograph of dead soldiers on Buna Beach, someone decides the public really needs to see the reality of war.
The question isn’t limited to war. Newsroom debates have concerned publication of photographs of drowned kids, bodies of kids who couldn’t escape fires, victims of accidents or emotional situations that border on intruding on someone’s privacy. Sometimes the decision is made that the public needs to see the image to get the full gravity of the situation. Often the decision leans toward not shocking the readers, letting their imaginations fill in the spaces created by words. Editors, as reported in The Atlantic article, worry about the impact on all readers, including whether children might see the image.
It’s good that these conversations exist. Different outlets serve different audiences. What’s too disturbing for some readers of the daily newspaper who subscribe mainly because it’s local might not be too disturbing for readers of a national publication devoted to politics and criticism. But one wonders what the role of a media outlet is and whether editors give enough credit to their customers. As the article in The Atlantic points out, it’s a new media world. Not publishing a photograph doesn’t mean it won’t be seen. A determined (or maybe not-so-determined) person can probably find the picture online. Maybe that gives editors whose publications might be seen by impressionable audiences greater rationale for not publishing a particular image.
But is the role to protect or to confront? Or something in between? Are there times when protecting the audience is actually doing more harm than confronting them? There’s no easy answer, and the answer today might questioned two decades later. Still, it’s important that the discussions continue. If they stop because everyone has decided to try not to offend the audience, we will not be the wiser for it.