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Journalists Debate Showing The Bodies After Mass Shootings

When Chicago Sun-Times editor Jennifer Kho saw the photos last week, her first thought was, “Oh, my God, we can’t run these.” They showed carnage and chaos: Victims of the July Fourth parade shooting in Highland Park, Il., lay sprawled on sidewalks and streets, blood pouring from wounds caused by a person armed with a high-powered rifle. The photos taken by veteran reporter Lynn Sweet, who happened to be at the parade during the attack, were clearly newsworthy: graphic evidence of a mass shooting in the Sun-Times’s backyard. Kho knew publishing them could upset victims’ families or offend readers who aren’t used to seeing gruesome images in a mainstream publication, or be seen as exploitation. The Sun-Times published just one of Sweet’s photos on its website; it shows a victim covered by a blanket, except for one hand, with blood flowing from the body down the steps of a plaza, the Washington Post reports. The newspaper placed the photo behind a screen that warned viewers before they clicked through: “This image is graphic and disturbing. … Please consider the potential for trauma and exercise caution and self-care in deciding whether to view it.” Kho decided to withhold the photo from the print newspaper so readers wouldn’t stumble across it.

Even with its caveats and cautions, the decision to publish the photo was unusual. Graphic images of violent-crime victims are rarely published or aired by mainstream news outlets.; few will show blood or a victim’s face. Amid an epidemic of mass shootings, some journalists argue that traditional notions of restraint amount to an evasion of journalists’ responsibility to depict reality. “We cannot sanitize these killings,” tweeted Nancy Barnes, NPR’s senior vice president for news, after 19 children and two adults were killed at a school in Uvalde, Tx., in May. “That in and of itself is an editorial decision.” “Show the bodies,” journalism dean David Boardman and medical-school dean Amy Goldberg of Temple University urged in a Philadelphia Inquirer column. “Put on display — in newspapers, on television, across the internet — a photograph or three that can, finally, help the American public understand exactly what happens when a weapon designed for modern warfare is unleashed on innocent, unarmed people. Like a 10-year-old at school.” News editors should avoid creating “a sadistic image culture” that desensitizes readers and viewers, exploits victims and re-traumatizes survivors, said Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Other kinds of reporting can be more effective, he said. He suggested journalists ask, “Is blood the only way to jolt the public conscience?”


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