When Graphic Content Is Only A Click Away — Who Publishes?
As eyewitnesses and terrorist groups alike spread graphic images and videos online, newsrooms worldwide struggle to find their role as modern gatekeepers, writes Storyful’s Jen Hauser.
When footage of a police officer being shot on the streets of Paris by the jihadists that attacked the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo emerged online last month, many felt that a line had been crossed.
Presented with such striking visual evidence of the incident, news organisations were in the difficult position of deciding how and if they should publish this material. Many used it, but in a heavily redacted form. The witness, who filmed and uploaded the incident from his apartment, later told the Associated Press that he regretted sharing the video, saying that he had “completely panicked”.
The graphic imagery that is now just a mouse-click away has stoked intense debate about its use by news media. The belief that the use of graphic images in news reporting is inherently ethically wrong is a predominantly Western one. This belief is as fiercely defended by supporters as a way to preserve the dignity and humanity of the victims as it is attacked by critics as a wish to sanitize unpalatable truths. The reality of modern news coverage often lies somewhere in between.
Following the Air Asia crash on December 28, 2014, Indonesian media screened images of the dead as their bodies were being recovered. To put this in context, Mark Forbes, news director at Australia’s The Age and a former Indonesia correspondent, wrote: “Screening such images is about more than satisfying morbid curiosities. Culturally, there appears to be more of a sense of confronting, and then accepting, death.”
As the ‘gatekeeping’ role over images of violence and conflict has moved outside the reach of news editors, there has been criticism over a perceived trend in mainstream media to reproduce graphic material. The argument goes that as news media is coming under pressure to compete with the spectacle that unedited real-time reporting on social media offers, traditional ethical standards are slipping.
Mainstream media are accused of allowing the terrorist group Islamic State to appropriate them as platforms for propaganda, instilling fear with gruesome footage of executions. As objectionable and as horrifying as the scenes in videos by Islamic State are, independent evidence of atrocities in IS-controlled areas is thin on the ground and often the only source is the terrorist group itself. The reality is that neutral sources are the exception rather than the rule in many areas of conflict, especially when this area is inaccessible to outsiders.
It was video evidently shot by either a member of IS or a sympathiser that revealed the scores of dead Syrian soldiers killed after the capture of an airbase in Raqqa in August. Another video showed troops being marched through the desert in nothing but their underwear ahead of a mass execution. By comparison, the videos showing the beheadings of IS hostages James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, Peter Kassig and others were distinctly marked as originating from the group and distributed via a hosting site. Social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook quickly moved to remove the content. IS themselves edited out the moment of the killing, as if aware that the depiction of the act itself was not made for broadcast.
These videos were evidently of public interest, as they were the only evidence that these American, British, Japanese and French hostages had been killed. In Western media, the videos were very rarely used in an unmediated form — usually a screenshot from the footage was published in its place.
At Storyful, if the content of a video is of public interest, we will investigate it, seek to verify it and alert our clients to its existence. Since much of our work is done as a business-to-business news agency, we are often in the fortunate position not to have to ponder over how much graphic imagery is too much for public consumption. We will typically alert our clients to whatever content is considered of public interest, along with a warning. In the case of the IS videos, Storyful downloaded them through the hosting site where IS typically publishes videos in order to verify them as much as possible and inform our clients as to their content.
This sort of work helps shape the narrative of the stories of the day. For instance, the graphic images streaming out of Gaza last summer gave a form to the impact of the Israeli airstrikes that few would argue did not add an important dimension to the news coverage.
Though Storyful largely does not differentiate verification practices between graphic and non-graphic material behind the scenes, elsewhere in our processes there are many ethical considerations that come into play.
Videos depicting scenes of violence, death or containing explicit language are, with few exceptions, not published directly on Storyful’s audience-facing platforms or in any public work it does for its clients and partners (such as the Facebook Newswire).
We may occasionally post graphic content to the Open Newsroom, clearly labelled with a warning about its content, for the purposes of crowdsourcing more information around the circumstances or collaborating on verification with experts and fellow journalists. We may use this option, for instance, when trying to establish the facts around claims of atrocities and human rights violations.
As a social media news agency, Storyful also frequently licenses user-generated content, helping uploaders to earn money through the use of their material by news organisations. We have specific guidelines in place when it comes to working with uploaders around footage depicting death and violence. For one thing, Storyful can’t do business with uploaders in countries under sanction, and many videos containing scenes of violence by nature stem from conflict zones.
There’s also a safety issue to consider, as encouraging anyone to put themselves in a potentially dangerous situation in the hope of payment is ethically dubious, at best. Fostering a potential hunt for morbid spectacles with the promise of compensation may also undermine the citizen journalism that grew out of a personal motivation to publicise what one has witnessed. Because of these factors and others, we never commission user-generated content, but rather only deal with discoverable content that has already been published.
Graphic material is recorded and uploaded for many reasons: as evidence, a call for help, a threat, a howl of rage at injustice, and, yes, sometimes out of simple morbid fascination. Whatever the motivation, unedited images of human suffering and death on social media have reignited a valid discussion about what it means to bear witness, where the public’s sensitivities lie and ultimately where to strike the balance between the two.