This article was originally published by Poynter on October 13, 2023, and was reproduced with permission. Any reprint permissions are subject to the original publisher.
‘We know that war is brutal and violent, and some pictures surely need to be shown.’
The choice of words, especially in the coverage of a war, has become a matter of debate among the news media.
As the Israel-Hamas war escalates, its horrors have become more apparent by the day. The images are gut-wrenching. Children pulled from rubble. People bloodied and hurt. Bodies in the streets. Hostages fighting for their lives.
Today anyone with a cellphone can capture and publish images faster and easier than ever. The New York Times reported this week that Hamas is posting videos intended to spread terror on Telegram and on X (formerly Twitter).
When documenting volatile conflicts, one of the toughest decisions editors make is deciding what viewers see, especially if those images could be disturbing. Journalists aren’t meant to sugarcoat or sanitize reality, but avoiding sensationalism is also crucial.
To explore how media organizations grapple with tough decisions on what to air and publish during a war, I interviewed two veteran standards editors about the calls they are making this week. They both described a process that is more art than science.
“At CBS News we think it’s important to show the reality of war, and the impact on civilian populations. We shouldn’t sanitize war,” said Claudia Milne, senior vice president of standards and practices at CBS News. “Having said that, we are mindful that these are victims of violence, and we want to preserve the dignity of people as much as possible.”
This is where many discussions start: Is it a violation of dignity to show people in distress or dead? Or would not showing them be a disservice to the mission of creating a more informed society?
“We might blur the faces of individuals who have been killed if they are clearly visible,” Milne said. “We think about our audience and make sure that we don’t broadcast images that will make them turn away, thereby defeating the purpose of trying to show them what is happening.”
Milne said CBS News also takes into account if children are likely to be watching at the time, and will usually warn the audience if graphic visuals will be shown.
Conversations about what to show the audience are also happening at The Associated Press, which employs correspondents around the world and sends them into conflict zones.
“We know that war is brutal and violent, and some pictures surely need to be shown (Nick Ut’s napalm girl or Eddie Adams’ image of a Viet Cong prisoner being summarily executed are two examples),” said John Daniszewski, vice president and editor-at-large for standards at The Associated Press. “But we know that bloody, mangled bodies occur in every war and in many accidents, and we do not send all of these to the public out of reasons of respect for the audience and respect for the victims and their families. So, it is always a balancing act.”
The Associated Press is in the unique position of gathering reporting, videos and images for its own channels while also sharing footage with subscribing outlets as a wire service. Serving both loyalties is top of mind as it navigates war footage.
“When a photo or video arrives that appears to be highly graphic, such as a dead body, or a bloody or maimed victim, or a depiction of death, we discuss the image among ourselves and determine whether its news value justifies showing it,” Daniszewski said.
The AP has a different standard for footage that will be shared with its newsroom partners.
“For visual material going to other newsrooms, we will be somewhat less restrictive about what we will distribute, believing the newsrooms can render their own standards decisions,” he said. “We will flag these videos as containing graphic material to make editors aware that they need to evaluate them for themselves. For CR (customer-ready) material, we will often not move graphic imagery, or, if we decide the image is very important, we will prepare a customer warning that the following image or video contains graphic material, before the image can be opened online.”
CBS News isn’t running a wire service like The Associated Press, but it still grapples with decisions on broadcasting graphic material.
“We don’t reuse graphic images and video repeatedly in a story or use it as wallpaper. We try to be deliberate and thoughtful and use images when necessary but not overuse them,” Milne said. “We tend to avoid using the most graphic images in headlines or promos so as not to be exploitative.”
This week, footage of hostages taken by Hamas has cycled through coverage, sometimes on the repetitive loop that Milne described. Hostage situations are another pressure point for newsrooms, as they must be careful that coverage doesn’t inadvertently advance the captors’ cause. The footage might be considered propaganda. The goal is to avoid providing extremist groups more fuel to use for creating terror.
“We avoid depicting hostages and prisoners in a way that would benefit their captors,” Daniszewski said. “We are aware of international conventions that ban governments from displaying prisoners to humiliate them. Occasionally we will allow limited use of such images, but only to establish proof of life.”
Before I joined Poynter this summer, I was part of a 12-person team handling standards and practices across all the NBC News network and digital channels. I learned there are no quick, easy answers for any of this.
While there may be some informal standards for handling sensitive images — such as news organizations adding a warning before airing or showing graphic content — there are no universal rules in the industry.
“In journalism, at least in the United States, your ethics are rooted in your organization. And so every news organization has to make these decisions for itself,” said Kelly McBride, Poynter’s senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership.
When it comes to making calls in line with an organization’s values, McBride offers a starting point: “If there’s a clear journalistic purpose and you don’t show it, then you are failing in your primary purpose of informing the public.”
It’s a tragic week in a complicated period for news and reporting. More journalists are no doubt en route to the war zone as you’re reading this. They will soon confront the grim reality of battle, and their cameras will be rolling. Ultimately, McBride said those journalists shouldn’t apologize for carrying out one of their principal job functions: reporting.
“I would never fault a journalism organization for being a direct witness to war and then showing and telling people ‘here is what we saw,’ because they are adding to the broader context.”