The Limits of Gruesome

By Casey Bukro

“You can’t handle the truth!” shouts Jack Nicholson in one of his memorable movie roles.

That could be said of public reaction to some of the harsh and violent realities of life that increasingly are shown these days in video reports, such as the gruesome video aired in the attack on an off-duty British soldier who was hacked and stabbed to death in London’s Woolwich neighborhood May 22.

An amateur’s video showed one of the alleged assailants, his bloody hands holding a knife and a clever, explaining why the soldier, Lee Rigby, was killed.

The graphic scenes, filmed by a member of the public with a mobile phone, prompted more than 700 complaints to the United Kingdom’s media regulator, known as Ofcom. The BBC, ITV, Britain’s Channel 4, Sky News and other broadcasters are being investigated by the media regulator for airing footage of the Woolwich attack.

Ofcom regulates the airwaves in the interests of citizens and consumers in Britain.

The incident is especially interesting for two reasons. One raises the question of how far is too far in pursuit of the news? Though the public is fairly jaded by gruesome images of war and violence these days, the Woolwich incident shows that at least some people think there is a limit to how much they are willing to see.

And the images were taken by a bystander with a cellphone, known these days as crowd sourcing. This is likely to be a growing source of information and conflict. The question is, should media outlets use it just because they have it?

A group of bloggers called International Square uses the Woolwich attack to ask: “How irresponsible are media when reporting on terrorism?”

ITV news said its decision to show the gruesome video was “editorially justified” in the public interest to explain the horrific event. Broadcasters said they warned the public of the graphic nature of the footage before showing it.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics suggests: “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

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About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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