Sensational and Gory Material

This section addresses these ethical questions:

Any form of reporting can raise questions involving sensational and gory material. Although we often think first of photos and videos involving blood or nudity, questions can also arise with text stories that describe pornography or mutilation of bodies, or audio of people in distress (e.g., 911 recordings of people calling police or firefighters in emergencies).

There are basically two views on this issue: Should journalists use such material as little as possible? Or should they “reflect reality” by showing readers precisely how awful something was — even at the risk of disturbing some readers and viewers?

The little-as-possible view proceeds, first of all, from a concern about audiences. Depending on the area you serve, your audience may react badly to material that seems to go beyond the needs of the story, simply for the sake of shock value.

This view holds that readers can understand the horror of a bombing without seeing dismembered bodies, and that it’s enough to tell them someone was “sexually mutilated” without describing the mutilation in detail. Readers don’t need all the gory details to form an opinion about bombers or brutal killers.

Readers or viewers may feel that you’re providing sensational and gory content simply to build viewership, “sell newspapers” or drive traffic — not to accomplish any real public good. They may also feel that young readers should not be subjected to this material.

In contrast, the “reflect reality” view holds that there’s more danger in “sanitizing” a truly horrible scene or event than in showing the audience just how awful it was. In this view, people cannot react to war and other horrors with the vigor they should, if the true suffering of those involved is not forcefully reported. Certainly, graphic images are disturbing, but that’s the point. Readers need to know just how terrible the situation is.

As for readers or viewers complaining that your organization is just looking for sensation, the “reflect reality” group says this: The true horror is in the event, not the coverage, and if people need to be shocked in order to focus on something of critical human importance, so be it. As for the effect on young readers, the argument would be that children and teenagers see violence and nudity all the time in movies and online, and the effect of such images in the news is far less than parents and relatives think.

A middle course is to never let sensational and gory material be published without debate but to allow for thoughtful decisions in both directions. Sometimes horror can be conveyed sufficiently, even if the worst part of an image is cropped out, or if some details are spared in a news story. A photo shot from a distance can convey a gory scene without showing close-up details. Sometimes a disturbing image can be placed behind a warning slate that requires a click-through in order to display it, played only deep inside a newspaper or website or published only in black and white.

Sometimes the question arises as to whether news organizations should have different standards for gory and sensational material depending on where it originates. For instance, a newspaper might not want to show an identifiable photo of a dead child in its community but would run a similar photo of a dead child in from a distant conflict.

If the news organization sees itself above all as a citizen of the community, reacting as community members would, it might well not publish the photo of the dead local child. However, if it wants to set a standard of caring for all people equally, wherever they are, it should apply the same standards to troubling images from anywhere.

The key is to discuss sensational and gory material before publication and to have a clear reason for your decision to display it or not.

Some news organizations also try to limit the number of staff members who need to view gory or disturbing material, or to rotate them so staffers are not exposed to it for long periods of time. Viewers of disturbing material may suffer some of the same effects that come from being present at the events.

The main author of this section is Thomas Kent.

Additional Resources
The War Photo No One Would Publish, Torie Rose DeGhett, The Atlantic
Telling War’s Deadly Story At Just Enough Distance, Dave Carr, The New York Times
Guidelines for Graphic Content, RTDNA
10 Questions to Make Good Ethical Decisions, Bob Steele, Poynter