By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
One of the leading journalism ethics issues to emerge from the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting is whether to show photos of the bullet-torn bodies of children.
It’s an old question, but gaining in fervor as mass shootings with assault rifles and ammunition designed to blow human bodies apart became the preferred instrument for mass murder.
“Should journalists publish pictures of the grisly aftermath of gun violence, so that Americans can’t duck the consequences of our permissive gun laws?” asks Joel Mathis in The Week magazine. “Or do such images invade the privacy of grieving families and harm them even further?”
Temple University journalism dean David Boardman tweeted: “It’s time – with the permission of a surviving parent — to show what a slaughtered 7-year-old looks like.
A parent approves of photos
Some parents of slaughtered school children might agree. Lenny Pozner’s 6-year-old son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Images of the horrific damage an assault rifle did to his child might change minds about gun laws. “It would move some people,” he told The Week magazine.
The death toll at Uvalde was 19 children and two teachers. The 18-year-old shooter was killed by a Border Patrol tactical unit.
Taboos governing what is socially acceptable change over time, especially in a world coarsened by exposure to a constant stream of erotica and death of all sorts, including mangled casualties of war. But how far can, or should, journalists go to show the gore and mutilation of murdered children? That is a taboo that still causes some restraint or hesitation.
In an effort to explore this territory, AdviceLine in 2013 posted “The Limits of Gruesome,” a report about a video aired by British media of an attack on an off-duty British soldier who was hacked and stabbed to death in London. An amateur photographer with a mobile phone showed one of the assailants, his bloody hands holding a knife and a clever, explaining why he killed the soldier. The video prompted more than 700 complaints to the United Kingdom’s media regulator.
Another AdviceLine post, “Photos of Dead Bodies,” in June, 2019, mentioned the heart-breaking images of a man and his daughter drowned in the Rio Grande River. An ethicist said it was an example of journalists showing a truth about immigration the public would prefer not to see. “Don’t hide them,” she said.
An AdviceLine post on “Justifying Photos of Death” in January, 2019, reported on New York Times photos of a terror attack on a Nairobi hotel, leaving 21 dead. The photos were criticized as distasteful. The Times responded: “It is important to give our readers a clear picture of the horror of an attack like this,” to give a real sense of the situation.
No doubt, the right images at the right time can launch public outcries and changes, including jailing police officers.
Emmett Till murder photos
It would be difficult to top the Emmett Till case for gruesomeness, and could serve as an example of the public’s tolerance for seeing the horrifying details of murder.
Born and raised in Chicago, Till in 1955 was a 14-year-old African American boy visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was kidnapped, tortured and shot in the head after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket, showing the boy’s mutilated and bloated body, which had been dumped in the Tallahatchie River.
Tens of thousands attended the funeral or viewed his open casket. Images of his disfigured body were published in magazines and newspapers. Till posthumously became an icon of the civil rights movement. Two white men were charged with his murder, but an all-white jury found them not guilty. Protected from double jeopardy, the two men admitted in a 1956 interview with Look magazine that they tortured and murdered Till. The Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, signed into law on March 29, 2022, made lynching a federal hate crime.
Rodney King beating
Crowd sourcing made a huge impact on recorded modern life and death. An early example is the Rodney King case. In 1991, he was beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers during an arrest for driving while intoxicated. A bystander filmed the beating from his nearby balcony and sent the footage to a local news station, causing a public furor around the world over police brutality.
Four of the officers were tried on charges of using excessive force. Three were acquitted; the jury failed to reach a verdict on one charge for the fourth police officer. Within hours of the acquittals, the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out, sparked by outrage among racial minorities. Rioting lasted six days, killing 63 people and injuring 2,383 others. The federal government charged the four police officers with violating King’s civil rights. Two of the officers were found guilty in 1993 and sentenced to prison. Two were acquitted. In a separate civil lawsuit in 1994, a jury found the City of Los Angeles liable and awarded King $3.8 million in damages.
George Floyd death
George Floyd was a similar, but more deadly, case. On May 25, 2020, Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, was arrested by four Minneapolis police officers on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill. During the arrest, Floyd was forced face-down in a street while officer Derek Chauvin knelt with his left knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd pleaded he could not breathe, then died.
The next day, videos by witnesses and security cameras became public, causing worldwide consternation over police brutality. All four officers were fired and Chauvin, charged with various counts of murder and manslaughter, was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison. The three other officers also were charged. Two autopsies ruled Floyd died by homicide. On March 12, 2021, Minneapolis agreed to pay $27 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Floyd’s family.
Each of those cases demonstrate the mounting influence of photographic or video evidence in crimes. Anyone with a cell phone can record the truth of a situation. But how much truth can the public tolerate?
Children a sticking point
The United States appears to have arrived at a sticking point where children are involved, and an intersection with the development of weapons that demolish their victims. Such devastation was described in reports saying that bodies of murdered Uvalde children could only be identified by DNA or clothing they were wearing.
Journalists who produce photos of mangled children likely will be accused of sensationalism by an American public whose trust in media is near record lows, according to the Gallup Poll. Or a media challenge to Constitutional rights to own firearms. American polarization has made the search for a middle ground almost impossible, and demonization of American media is part of that mind-set. Society must decide how much it is willing to see. As with pornography, community standards might be needed to decide what is obscene.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics is marginally helpful. It warns journalists to “use special sensitivity when dealing with children” and “show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” But the code is silent on the delicate issue of photos of bullet-riddled children.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.