That unwritten rule exists for a reason: Journalists are understandably skittish about exposing media consumers – and their children – to unnecessary death and gore. Stories like Katrina and the war in Iraq force people in the media to try to find a way in which to present harsh realities without going too far.
More often than not, says "60 Minutes" Executive Producer Jeff Fager, they don't go far enough. "We tend to err on the side of sanitizing news to keep people from the realities of a war or a natural disaster, and I'm not sure that's our role," he says. When Fager was a producer in the field, he says, his team would usually choose not feed in video that showed dead bodies. "We do a lot of self-censorship," he adds, something he's noticed in particular in coverage of the Iraq war. "Usually we don't see enough of what's really going on in Iraq."
Marvin Kalb, Senior Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, agrees. "We are getting a somewhat sanitized version of the Iraq war," he says. He points out that European media, reflecting the antiwar sentiment in their countries, present a more "bloody, violent, awful" image of the war.
Kalb says the fundamental question is whether or not people are entitled to an unfiltered portrayal of what's going on, even if it means showing images that are disturbing. "The answer," he says, "is that yes, you are entitled to see everything. But that doesn't mean you should see everything. The goal [for media organizations] is to strike a balance that conveys some sense of reality without sanitizing it."
There are, to speak broadly, two kinds of media consumer: Those who want unfiltered coverage – the kind that includes the often-horrible realities of war or tragedy – and those who don't think it appropriate for those realities to be piped into their living rooms. (There are degrees to this, of course – for example, a viewer might feel better about graphic images at 11 p.m. than he or she would at 6:30 p.m., when the kids might be watching – but the two groups identified above represent the two primary and opposing viewpoints.) It's impossible for media outlets to satisfy both groups when covering a story like Iraq. "We're in a tough position," says Fager. "Viewers get turned off if they see something too graphic, but it's war and it's real and it's harsh."
"If you hold back and don't show disturbing images, you're not offering a complete and truthful picture," says Deborah Potter, president and executive director of Newslab. "One of the reasons media use such images is that they inform." Still, she says, media outlets have a responsibility to take precautions to minimize the damage such images might cause. She suggests guidelines such as never showing a corpse that might be identified by a family member watching on television.
There is one place where extremely graphic images of war are little more than a click away, however. Just as the Internet has eliminated media outlets' near monopoly on disseminating news, it has made it possible for graphic images to find their way to anyone curious enough to look for them. Consider this website – whose name I won't print, in accordance with our standards – which includes a section called "Pictures From Iraq and Afghanistan – Gory." (But be warned: the images you'll find there – including exploding heads and sliced off faces – are extremely disturbing.)
The site, which Online Journalism Review's Mark Glaser reported on last week, offers those who can prove they are soldiers free access to its pornographic content. How do the soldiers prove themselves? By sending in images of war, graphic and otherwise, which get posted along with flippant comments.
If the Internet provides the most graphic images of war, then, one could argue that other media should, in fact, err on the side of restraint, since the stronger images are available elsewhere. After all, people who want to see an American hostage executed – and I am not among them – know they can go to the Internet to find the video. But just as they don't want to be criticized for showing too graphic of images, media outlets are loathe to be seen as toothless gatekeepers afraid to portray reality. So they're forced to walk a tightrope.
On the CBS Evening News, for example, you aren't likely to see the dead body of an American soldier killed in combat. But you will see the "Fallen Heroes" segment, which shows pictures of that soldier before she was killed and offers details about her life. It's an interpretation of reality that producers hope will perhaps sate, if not satisfy, those who feel that coverage of a war cannot ignore the casualties.
Potter takes a different approach. "The media needs to use graphic images, but when they do they need to inform people by explaining why they're doing it – not just warning them about what they're about to see."