Sunday evening, CBS News' 60 Minutes aired what it said was some of the most disturbing and graphic video it has ever put on television. The network began warning viewers about the video Friday. The story Sunday night warned viewers that "If you have young children watching right now, that is usually a good thing. But this story is not for them. The pictures you are about to see are agonizing."

CBS posts a warning online as the program begins.
CBS posts a warning online as the program begins.

The report by anchorman Scott Pelley called "A Crime Against Humanity" focused on the 2013 sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 Syrian civilians -- 426 children died in the attack just outside of Damascus.  Sunday evening, 60 Minutes aired more than three minutes of video captured by cell phones of adults and children suffering seizures, vomiting and gasping for air. The video was interspersed with an interview of a survivor of the attack and an inspector for Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The video is not new. It surfaced online in August 2013 -- Warning: it is extremely graphic.

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 7.16.08 PM Pelley said when CBS aired snippets of that video in 2013, he made a decision then to find out more about the attack, not just air the disturbing images for a day or two and walk away from it.  Back in 2013, President Assad said the allegations that it used chemicals against civilians was "absolutely baseless." Two years later, no one has ever been held responsible for those attacks. But 60 Minutes reported, inspectors found sarin, no doubt about that.

CBS's online website, 60 Minutes Overtime included an interview with Pelley explaining why the network decided to air the video.

Pelley said:

"These kinds of things happen in the world too often because people don't see them and don't know why sarin, of all the weapons in the world, why sarin is banned by almost every country on earth and we wanted to just stop and show it to the world so that people could understand the hideousness of this weapon," he said.

"If you don't see it, I don't believe the impact truly hits you."

Pelley said he knew that "60 Minutes would support this work and we would show what is reality. We wanted the world to see what this was in all of its ugliness." He said, "We have never seen anything like these sarin gas attacks from Damascus, and I use the word 'seen' with great emphasis." Things have happened, and keep happening, he said, because we don't see it.

Pelley said 60 Minutes producers spent "months and months" on the story looking for witnesses who now live in refugee camps and that much of what CBS discovered in its investigation of the gas attack has not been reported before.

Pelley said, "Our hope was to put all of the available evidence in one place in one story so that people could truly understand the magnitude of what happened." Pelley said every day when he and his colleagues walked out of the edit rooms they were shaken by what they were seeing.

Pelley wondered "what would have happened during the Holocaust if all the Jews had cellphones?" Certainly, he said, if the world had known sooner what was happening in Hitler's concentration camps things might have turned out differently. "I think we have entered a new era of human rights that are in some way safeguarded and guaranteed by the fact that everybody has a video camera and a way to publish that video." Pelley said.

CBS could have held the story for next week but wisely, didn't. The May ratings "sweeps" begins Thursday (April 23rd) and by placing the disturbing video outside of the ratings period, CBS avoids the criticism that it was making a ratings play.

When and why should journalists air/publish graphic images?
Journalists struggle to find a balance between the images they believe the public should see and what they have the stomach to see. In February, Fox News chose to post video online of a Jordanian pilot being burned to death by his ISIS captors rather  than televise the graphic video. Variety included this quote in a story about the decision:

“After careful consideration, we decided that giving readers of FoxNews.com the option to see for themselves the barbarity of ISIS outweighed legitimate concerns about the graphic nature of the video,” said John Moody, exec VP and executive editor of Fox News, in a statement. “Online users can choose to view or not view this disturbing content.”

Two weeks ago, the graphic video of a South Carolina police officer shooting an unarmed suspect aired on newscasts for days. Two years ago, journalists had to decide what to do with the bloody images of bystanders and runners killed and injured at the Boston Marathon bombing.  20 years ago today, the image of an Oklahoma City firefighter carrying a dying baby from the rubble of the bombed out Murrah Federal Building became an iconic Pulitzer Prize winning image of that horrible day.

Poynter Vice President and Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark shared his reaction to the 60 Minutes story with me, "While not on the scale of the Holocaust, it is so reminiscent of the images from the concentration camps.  CBS has served the world with the baring of these scenes of dying and death."

The Radio and Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) offers guidelines on how to think through the decision to show graphic video. CBS' decision fulfilled those guidelines. Those questions include:

  • What is the journalistic purpose behind broadcasting the graphic content? Does the display of such material clarify and help the audience understand the story better? Is there an issue of great public importance involved such as public policy, community benefit or social significance?
  • Is the use of graphic material the only way to tell the story? What are your alternatives?
  • If asked to defend the decision to your audience or the stakeholders in the story, such as a family member, how will you justify your decision? Are you prepared to broadcast your rationale to your audience? If not, why?

The public reaction online was emotional but overwhelmingly supportive of CBS' decision to air the video. 

If there is a criticism to level against 60 Minutes, it would not be that they aired the graphic video. It is that they didn’t devote the entire program to the Syria story. If the story was so important that 60 Minutes spent months investigating it, if it was so important that Pelley felt it necessary to use horrific images, it was important enough to deserve a deep thoughtful exploration complete with an explanation of America’s response.

"Why not devote an hour to the Sarin investigation?" asked Clark. "The Syria story was so powerful, it certainly set the stage for more."