Advice on publishing graphic photos from Iraq

It’s just a matter of time.

That’s what I told a Kalish Visual Editing workshop on the campus of Ball State University just last week. I told the group that it was a matter of time before they were forced to make a decision on a graphic photograph and they needed to be prepared to defend their decision.

Today, one week later, CNN is posting what it calls “unverified images” ostensibly of the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) killing more than 200 militants, according to Iraqi state TV reports this morning.

The images are as graphic as photographs from the 2004 killing of four American civilian contractors in Fallujah, Iraq. (Poynter explored the topic then, too.)

These still photographs are being streamed across the Internet, and editors all around the globe are considering displaying the graphic nature of people being killed in cold blood.

Whenever journalists are faced with covering conflicts and violence, it helps to consider your ethical compass:

  • What is my journalistic purpose?
  • What organizational policies and professional guidelines should I consider?
  • What are my ethical concerns?
  • Who is the audience — and who are the stakeholders affected by my decision?
  • What are my alternatives?

Smartly, CNN elected to place the images in context by implementing three steps:

  • Anchor introduced statement regarding the graphic nature of the photographs.
  • Include video pre-rolls to offer disclosure statements. (These have proven valuable as viewers consider the nature of the content being presented in recent terrorist acts like the Boston Marathon bombings.)
  • Integrate graphic warnings and alerts as text overlays in the photographs as added information.

There will be obvious questions about showing death and trauma. Should you show the faces and identify the dead? Where should those images be published, if at all? What are the alternatives? How many photographs should be used and how long should they remain on the screen or be posted?

There is no one answer – different groups will make different decisions.

What is important is that an organization is courageous enough to be transparent about its process for seeking truthful reporting with its audience, while realizing that you are never going to please all of the people all of the time.

Consider Poynter’s 21st Century Guiding Principles:

  • Seek truth.
  • Be vigorous in your pursuit of accuracy.
  • Be transparent.
  • Be willing to share how your reporting was done.
  • Engage community.
  • Make an ongoing effort to understand the needs of the audience that you seek to serve.

In the days to come, President Obama and his advisers will certainly ponder the challenges and questions about U.S. aid and involvement in Iraq — just as media leaders, editors and producers need to decide and be prepared to defend their visual storytelling decisions.

Related Webinar: Grappling with Graphic Images

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