THE SLIDESHOW BEGINS with a photo of a trail of flame traveling across the dirt from right to left, like a scene from a movie where the bad guy — or maybe the good guy — leaves a thin trail of gas and drops a match to blow something up. The next photo pulls back to a wider shot, showing the flame headed directly to a man dressed in an orange jump suit, standing in a cage. The man faces the flame as it speeds toward him, his body erect hands raised in front of his chest. Yet another photo shows the flames dancing around the man’s legs, his body and hands unmoving, initially resisting the agony. Then the flames consume him, a waxy human wick, melting then going up in smoke, the image of an unspeakable conflagration seared into the depths of my soul.
There is no way in hell I am going to share this footage with the public.
THERE IS NO CONSENSUS on the role graphic imagery should play in journalism. For some it is an absolute taboo; for others a necessary evil to expose the evil in others. For me, I’ve usually come down on the latter side of the argument.
Historically — in the United States at least — mass media consumption was a family affair. You’d read the morning paper while feeding your kids breakfast; you’d watch the evening news while getting ready for dinner. Newspapers were profitable; broadcast news traced the outlines of our ever-evolving media culture. It’s not that journalism was necessarily innocent back then — there was no shortage of war, famine and other horrors to cover — but editors and producers maintained an unspoken level of discretion, a self-censorship to avoid offending common decency. Yes, cover the war, so the idea went, but don’t show the bodies — especially if it’s gory. Show human suffering, but only to a point. We wouldn’t want to make breakfast or dinner uncomfortable for everyone.
Of course, there were exceptions, going all the way back to the advent of photojournalism. During the US Civil War 150 years ago, residents of the north would buy postcards and flock to exhibits of war photography by Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner. Their photos of bloated bodies dotting the fields of Antietam and Gettysburg became symbols of the horrors of war in a culture where death was considered an intensely private matter.
Photographers would continue to go into battle, again and again, from the Spanish-American War to World War II. While the US government had the capacity to censor wartime footage, occasionally editors would win out, as when Life Magazine published George Strock’s Three dead Americans on the beach at Buna. While not graphic by today’s standards, Strock’s photo captured the brutal reality of war in the Pacific like few images others before it.
Perhaps it was Vietnam that raised the stakes the most when it came to challenging editorial standards. Malcolm Browne photographed Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức sitting peacefully in the middle of a Saigon intersection, burning himself alive as fellow monks formed a cordon around him so no one could extinguish the flames. The photo received the 1963 World Press Photo of the Year award. Or Nick Ut’s photo of nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked down a road after stripping off her clothes, burning in napalm. That, too, won the World Press Photo of the Year award for 1972, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Or Eddie Adams’ photo of police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém, in the middle of a Saigon Street. It also won both photo awards. It seemed that photojournalists were now being recognized for doing their job, no matter how horrifying the footage might be.
Yet in retrospect, Vietnam proved the exception, not the rule. Future conflicts such as the 1991 Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were self-censored, too. “Embedding” became all the rage during these wars, giving journalists direct access to troops under fire. Yet these wars never really achieved the collective visual impact as had the prior work of a Nick Ut or an Eddie Adams. You rarely saw the true price of war, whether in the form of civilian or military casualties. Even photos of the return of remains via Dover Air Force Base were a rarity — dignified ceremonies of flag-drapped coffins being removed from planes got censored because of reminding people of the toll of war. Ultimately it took a FOIA request and a lawsuit to get them released by the Pentagon.
This, of course, is a distinctly American perspective. We tend to like our horrors delivered to us somewhat sanitized. Impactful, but still sanitized. Such discretion — or censorship, depending on your point of view — isn’t universal. Think of the footage of civilians killed in Gaza that Al Jazeera has shown uncensored for years. That would almost never fly on US television. I also remember seeing a news website in India featuring a slideshow of a school that had burned down. In one photo, a woman cried in sheer despair at the sight of small, burnt corpses stacked on top of each other by the door, left where they fell, children panicking in a futile attempt to escape the flames. Nothing like that would ever be shown to a mainstream US news audience. Never.
But now, thanks to the ubiquity of social media, it matter less what mainstream media chooses to do, as everyone online now has the capacity to view footage selectively, by their own accord. This was the basis of my editorial thinking for much of 2011 and 2012, during the Arab Spring and its aftermath.
As the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt spread elsewhere, so did footage created by members of the public, recorded on their camera phones and distributed across social platforms. Early on I made the difficult decision to share graphic footage, but with very specific rules of engagement. Every post would always include the word graphic in it — no one should ever be surprised when they open a link and see something horrible. I’d experienced it myself — people would often send me links of graphic footage, but most of the time they told me what to expect. When they didn’t, the shock of what I was looking at hit me hard, and I didn’t want to put my followers through the same experience. Those are often the photos that haunt me the longest.
Meanwhile, whenever possible, I added blunt details about what the footage would contain. If the footage showed the broken bodies of children killed in a mortar attack, my tweet would say so. If it showed a horrendous head wound, my followers would know about it before they ever clicked the link. This way they were aware of what the footage contained and could make an informed decision as to whether to look at it.
Even though I was deliberate in my approach, my methods weren’t without controversy. Some people felt the old way of doing things — that discretion should always be the default editorial position — was preferable, and criticized me for sharing footage. Some times, the criticism was selective — for example, it was okay to show footage of dead Arab civilians in Libya, but when the dead happened to be well-known photographers such as Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, suddenly it crossed a line. (This always struck me as hypocritical, and according to close friends of theirs that I’ve talked to about the matter, Chris and Tim would have probably felt the same way, too.) But editorial decisions are ethical decisions as well. There’s isn’t always a right or wrong — it’s a matter of making a tough call and being able to articulate your reasoning behind it. Achieving 100% consensus on the matter will always prove to be futile.
And so for most of 2011 and 2012, I stuck to my editorial standards. Share graphic footage, but with a warning and enough context for people to decide whether to view it. Share graphic footage not because it’s salacious, but because people should have the right to bear witness. Share graphic footage, because we can’t let the bastards get away with this.
Over time, though, I found myself posting fewer and fewer pieces of graphic footage. I sensed I was burning out, and feared my readers were, too. How many videos of war and suffering can a person handle in a day? A week? A year? When a conflict like Syria can literally produce hundreds of pieces of graphic footage every single day, is it more effective and/or ethical to become much more selective about what you share? And where do you draw the line? Documenting civilian deaths? Autopsies of tortured children? Rape footage? Executions? In a continuum of suffering, where do you draw the line — and how do you make a case for why you chose to draw that line?
After a while, I just stopped. Cold turkey. No more footage. My Twitter followers knew what Youtube channels I used, what sources I retweeted. It was easy enough for them to find new footage if they truly wanted to see it.
And then there were the flashbacks. For me, the trigger always seemed to be food. My kids giggling while eating a bowl of spaghetti. A smashed piece of cauliflower I saw outside a salad bar I used to frequent near my old office. Someone using a melon scoop to empty a cantaloupe. Everyday activities that caused me to remember very specific photos and videos — all of which I chose to share with my social networks. I wonder what triggers they experienced? Sounds? Voices? Colors? Even smells?
And then there was the numbness I’d see around me. Colleagues who spent their working hours vetting war footage for months on end. Twitter followers who’d pass along footage as if they were just sharing a recipe with me. I remember one exchange with a Twitter follower when I said I always made sure my back faced the wall while using a laptop so my kids would never be exposed to graphic footage accidentally. “What’s the big deal?” he asked me. It seemed self evident — my kids were five and three at the time. “I’ve been watching footage like this since I was in middle school, and look at me now,” he’d reply.
Exactly. I thought. Look at you now.
AT SOME POINT IN 2013, I started sharing graphic footage again, but much more selectively. Evidence of civilians targeted in Gaza. Evidence of chemical weapons attacks or barrel bombs in Syria. Evidence. I felt the ethical responsibility to share what I was finding, since I knew most of it would never see the light of day via mainstream media. And my Twitter followers still had a choice — bear witness themselves, or allow someone else to do it. There was no right or wrong answer. You did what you felt was right, and I’d never second-guessed their decision. Nor did they second-guess my decision to share the footage in the first place. But then two entirely different things came along and triggered the ethical conundrum I find myself in today.
ISIS and algorithms.
AT FIRST, ISIS was a fringe element among a hodge-podge of militant groups operating in Syria. On any given day I’d see scores of video clips from citizen journalists, the Free Syrian Army, and various independent rebel brigades, many of which maintained their own Youtube channels. But ISIS videos were different. Sure, they’d share gloating footage of them setting off IEDs at Syrian army checkpoints, or the aftermath of a firefight. But they also shared execution videos.
Executions by firing squad.
Executions by a bullet to the head after their victim had dug his own grave.
Executions by stoning — usually women.
Executions by throwing people off buildings.
Executions by sawing a man’s head off.
Executions by setting a man on fire.
And with each passing month, the production values got better and better.
With each new video, they seemed to outdo themselves with the sheer horror of what they were depicting. But that was their point — these were promotional videos produced to strike fear in the hearts of men, as well as recruit them to their inexplicable cause.
Bearing witness is necessary. It’s at the core of what journalism is about. But where do you draw the line between the public interest and the prurient interest? Where do you draw the line between capturing the horror of ISIS and serving their cause by unwittingly crowdsourcing their PR efforts? Where exactly do you put your foot down and say no — I will not share this?
THEN THERE ARE the algorithms. At one point in time, when you looked at a tweet or a Facebook post that had a link in it, that’s all it was — a bunch of text invariably beginning with the letters HTTP. If you wanted to see what someone was talking about, you had to click the link first. Otherwise, you’d remain blissfully unexposed to whatever was lurking behind that URL.
But then the Twitters and Facebooks of the world began changing their algorithms, all in the name of generating traffic. As anyone in social media marketing knows, a tweet or a post containing footage gets more clicks than one that doesn’t. So the software that ran these networks began to evolve, automatically detecting URLs that contained footage, and embedding them in-line with the tweet or post. On and on they tweaked these algorithms to identify posts with footage and auto-display that footage accordingly. If you use a Twitter client like Tweetdeck, embedded images fly by you unceasingly. If one of the people you follow on Twitter decided to include a screenshot of, let’s say, a freshly decapitated journalist, you’d have no time to avoid it. Like it or not, you’d catch it in the corner of your eye, or even worse, front and center. And by then it’s too late.
And as horrifying as images can be, videos are often worse. While some ISIS videos take a while to ramp up, others cut to the chase and show their brutality as soon as the video begins to roll. On Twitter, this is less of an issue because you’re only likely to see a thumbnail image from the video, which may or may not be graphic. On Facebook, though, it’s a whole other matter. Go take a look at your Facebook feed. Scroll down for a while. Count the number of posts by your friends that include videos — videos that auto-play the moment you reach them. Now imagine that of one of those videos showed an ISIS hostage being burned alive in a cage. Once again, it’s too late. It gets in your head, and nothing can ever get it out.
Twitter, Youtube and Facebook have all expanded their efforts to crack down on ISIS footage, removing clips and shutting down accounts as fast as they can. Having said that, supporters of ISIS are even faster. A virtual, disaggregated community of hydras, they sprout new heads as you scramble in vain to cut them off. A particular video may get “banned” from a social platform, but that’s just window dressing. With a few edits, a new account and a new title, the footage reappears, shared and retweeted until the site catches up with them once again. On and on it goes.
Which brings me back to today — the day after ISIS posted the video of one of their captives being burned alive.
I STILL BELIEVE in bearing witness. I still believe in giving my online followers a chance to make an informed decision about what they view and what they don’t. I still want to hold war criminals to account. But when am I serving the public’s interest? Is it when I share a clip and get accused of promoting ISIS and its ilk? Is it when I don’t share a clip and get accused of self-censorship, or attempting to hide the truth from the public?
Where do you draw the line?
Does the line even mean anything any more?