Should the media publish graphic news images?

Should the media publish graphic news images?

The 360 is a feature designed to show you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

Speed read

What's happening: A photograph of a father and his young daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande into the United States sparked anguish and outrage around the world this week. The image, taken by journalist Julia Le Duc, shows the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter, Valeria, face down in the water and underscored the dangers migrants encounter when attempting to enter the U.S. The pair were fleeing violence in their home country of El Salvador, according to the Associated Press.

The image also led to a debate about the decision by news organizations to publish the painful photo. Several outlets felt compelled to publish posts from top editors explaining their choice to do so. (Yahoo News chose to publish the photograph for its news value on a story of public importance.) A similar conversation arose in 2015 around a photograph of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe with his family.

Why there's debate: Advocates for showing the photos say they bear witness to the realities of some situations in a way that words cannot or that tragic images of individual people can humanize broad issues that are often only understood in the abstract.

There is evidence of photos having a major impact on public understanding of an issue, such as the effect the photograph of Emmett Till's mutilated body had on the civil rights movement or how the image of "Napalm Girl" Kim Phuc Phan Thi helped change public opinion of the Vietnam War.

Others argue that publishers are exploiting tragedy and the result is sensational rather than informative. Some critics contend a single image can strip an event of context and dehumanize the subject by positioning those depicted as avatars for a large social issue without their consent.

Others point out that when the decision is made to show traumatic images of this nature, they almost always feature people of color, which could suggest the media and public have different levels of tolerance for viewing the suffering of white and nonwhite people.


News organizations have an obligation to tell the full story, even if it's upsetting

"This is a story that must be told — fully and truthfully, with context and perspectives from all sides … and photography has the power to freeze a moment in time, one that in this case encapsulates the danger and desperation surrounding the exodus of immigrants primarily from Central American countries." — Manuel Garcia, USA Today

Images of suffering and death tend to feature only people of color, and that’s wrong

"U.S. media never do this with white bodies. But sometimes darker bodies are fair game. It's gruesome and wholly unnecessary. … It's like the only latinx immigrant worth showing is a dead one." — Reveal immigration reporter Aura Bogado via Twitter

We falsely assume the image will have the same impact on others as it did on us

"When nationalism has successfully dehumanized the other, there is no breaking through, and people who imagine that a photographic message must assuredly be so powerful that it will touch all hearts are forced to grapple with a more confounding truth: Not all consciences operate alike, not everyone is susceptible to what seems a basic, even rudimentary level of empathy." — Philip Kennicott, Washington Post

The images are only helpful when given the proper context

"Paradoxically, to protest and not simply acknowledge what we see in Le Duc’s harrowing picture requires that we do not look away; that we demand to know the context and ask the hard questions. That we bear both witness and know what we are seeing." — Peter Beaumont, Guardian

The photos can put a human face on a political debate

"People have become numbers, they’ve become statistics. People talk about immigrants in the absence of their humanity. As sad as it is, I think we need to show the photo." — Border Network for Human Rights director Fernando Garcia to Time

The people featured in the photos are stripped of their humanity

"The media wants you to view them as just another tragedy, more #’s to rack up migrant deaths. They will show you the graphic image saying it will make people 'care' or 'move them into action.' We think otherwise. Were they migrants? Yes. But before they were migrants they were a family." — immigrant advocacy group RAICES

Social media doesn't give readers the choice to avoid the image if they don't want to see it

"It’s one thing to feature graphic photos on the homescreen or in an article. It’s quite another thing to serve a graphic image in tweets and Facebook posts that can appear in the newsfeeds of people who didn’t deliberately seek out the news..." — Cynthia Collins, New York Times

Photographs have a powerful impact that words do not

“You can have statistics about a given issue, like how many children are being held in refugee camps. But then you have an image and it makes it all human. … It’s that unique way of bringing something to a scale we can comprehend. Photos give you the space and time to really think about something.” — Mark Lubell, executive director of the International Center for Photography to the Associated Press

The images can be harmful to the very groups they depict

"Pushing people to look at a shocking image that isn’t in context is not beneficial for the viewers, it is not beneficial for journalists, and it is absolutely detrimental to the immigrant community." — National Association of Hispanic Journalists

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