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When Should Media Use Gruesome Images Of Crime Scenes?

The shooter who killed eight people outside an Allen, Tex., mall on May 6 was captured on a dash-cam video as he stood in the middle of a parking lot, methodically murdering people.

The next day, when a driver plowed his SUV into men waiting for a bus in Brownsville, Tex., a video showed him speeding into and rolling over so many human beings that the camera holder had to pan across nearly a block-long field of mangled bodies, pools of blood and moaning, crying victims to capture the carnage. The driver killed eight people.

The gruesome videos instantly appeared on social media and were viewed millions of times before being taken down. They still appear in back alleys of the internet, the Washington Post reports.

The footage made clear that the deaths were horrific and the suffering unspeakable. The emotional power of the images would shake almost any viewer. Their rapid dissemination rekindled an unsettling debate: Why does anyone need to see such images?

Images of violence can inform, titillate, or rally people for or against a political view. News organizations and now social media platforms have grappled with questions of taste, decency and purpose over decisions about whether to fully portray the price of deadly violence.

Newspaper editors and television news executives have long sought to filter out pictures of explicit violence or bloody injuries that could generate complaints that such graphic imagery is offensive or dehumanizing. \

The gruesome video of a police officer killing George Floyd on a Minneapolis street in 2020 was repeatedly published across all manner of media, sparking a mass movement to confront police violence against Black Americans.

After the killings in Allen and Brownsville, traditional news organizations mostly steered clear of publishing the most grisly images.

“Those were not close calls,” said J. David Ake, director of photography for the Associated Press, which did not use the Texas videos. “We are not casual at all about these decisions, and we do need to strike a balance between telling the truth and being sensitive to the fact that these are people who’ve been through something horrific. But I am going to err on the side of humanity and children.”

Even as news organizations largely showed restraint, the Allen video spread widely on Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and other platforms, shared in part by individuals who expressed anguish at the violence and called for a change in gun policies.

“I thought long and hard about whether to share the horrific video showing the pile of bodies from the mass shooting‚” tweeted Jon Cooper, a Democratic activist and former Suffolk County, N.Y., legislator. He decided to post the video, which was then viewed more than a million times, because “maybe — just maybe — people NEED to see this video, so they’ll pressure their elected officials until they TAKE ACTION.”

Others who posted the video used it to make false claims about the shooter, such as the notion that he was a Black supremacist who shouted anti-White slogans before killing his victims.

Recent cutbacks in content moderation teams at companies such as Twitter have accelerated the spread of disturbing videos.

“The fact that very graphic images from the shooting in Texas showed up on Twitter is more likely to be content moderation failure than an explicit policy,” said Vivian Schiller, executive director of Aspen Digital and former president of NPR and head of news at Twitter.


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