July 11, 2017

Images and videos can be powerful tools to describe extremely difficult subjects. And digital cameras, smartphones and emerging storytelling tools make it easier than ever to share a dizzying array of news images. Yet many of these can be graphic or gruesome.

Here are some questions to help you decide what, where or whether to broadcast, publish or share visually explicit photos and video.

  • What is the journalistic purpose behind broadcasting the graphic content? Does the display of such material clarify the story or improve audience understanding? 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 the alternatives?
  • If asked to defend the decision to your audience or the stakeholders in the story, such as a family member, how would you justify your decision? Are you prepared to broadcast your rationale to your audience? If not, why not?
  • When is the story important enough to justify replaying graphic material? How will the material be used later? Will there be a time limit, after which the material is no longer aired?
  • Do you have guidelines or discussions about how to use the graphic material in promos, teases and social posts?
  • When is a notice to the audience warranted, warning them that they are about to see or hear graphic content? How much detail should the warning provide?
  • Under what circumstances does your news organization show bodies of accident or crime victims? How much graphic detail is necessary to convey the news aspect of the story? When do you cross the line into appealing to viewers’ desire for lurid detail?
  • How can you tell the story accurately while respecting the rights and privacy of the victim or the family?
  • Do the images you are using add to a perception that an area is violent or unsafe?
  • Before making a decision, can you discuss the pros and cons with a diverse group in your organization? Would you be willing to include non-journalists in that discussion, since they are more likely to be representative of your audience? Should you also call others who may be able to give you an outsider’s point of view — perhaps a media ethics expert who can help with discussion points?
  • When covering live events that could turn graphic quickly, have you taken sufficient precautions to prevent inappropriate pictures and sound from airing? Is there someone else available to collaborate on the decision of what and how to air images? Have you considered instructing field crews to stay wide on live camera shots?

Discussing these questions in advance helps you develop a process for making ethical decisions — before you’re faced with a tough call on deadline.

Taken from Ethics of Journalism, a self-directed course at Poynter NewsU.

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Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current…
Vicki Krueger

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