Graphic images of the carnage following the explosions at the Boston Marathon immediately flooded the Internet. They showed blood, torn limbs, terror and confusion. Media outlets quickly followed suit with more gruesome pictures of the aftermath.
As social media provide an unfiltered view of violent events, does this impact traditional media coverage? And how do these images affect us?
Picking the right image to tell a tragic, violent story is a balancing act, says Michael Days, editor of the Philadelphia Daily News.
“You want people to feel, you want people to feel a bit of the horror, you want them to feel a bit of the terror, without crossing the line that would make people turn away,” Days said.
Days says photos are chosen in a careful editorial process — to make sure that line isn’t crossed.
For Tuesday’s issue of the Daily News, Days’ team chose a picture depicting dazed victims in torn clothing on a sidewalk covered in blood.
Images available quickly
By the time a newspaper hits the stands, people have already seen lots of graphic of images, says Steven Gorelick, a professor in the department of media studies at Hunter College in New York.
“I think the genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “The images are available one place or another.”
The onslaught of images pouring in from social-media accounts affects the editorial process, says Chris Collins, director of photography for The Star-Ledger, based in Newark, N.J.
“I think it certainly impacts the decision-making process, to what degree, I don’t know,” he said.
Collins, who is also a marathon runner, says his team sticks to core values of editing.
“When it comes to choosing pictures,” he said, “we’re driven by the question of what feels right in this situation.”
Impact on editorial standards
Gorelick argues that traditional media outlets will have a hard time holding on to their editorial standards.
“It’s just going to get harder and harder to hold the line on compassion and good news judgment,” said Gorelick. “There’s always someone immediately available who will make a less than good and less than prudent news judgment.”
University of Pennsylvania communications professor Barbie Zelizer says images are an important part of the story — graphic or not.
“We wouldn’t say about the words of the news, ‘We don’t want to know about this,'” says Zelizer. “So why do we say, ‘We don’t want to see about this?'” she asked. “If the news is reportable, if we need to know it, then I think we need to see it.”
Mental health professionals are concerned about continued exposure to graphic, violent images.
Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychology at University of California, Irvine, recently studied the impact of violent images on people.
Her research found that people who were continuously exposed to graphic images in the wake of 9/11 suffered increased levels of physical and mental health problems, including PTSD symptoms.