The newsroom debate over which blood-smeared Muammar Gaddafi images to share with viewers and readers—which consumed wire services, newspapers, and news channels around the world today—seems a tad quaint in the age of the Internet. Thanks to ubiquitous cell phone cameras and hard to govern entities like Al Jazeera, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media that publish first and deliberate later, the old newsroom debates over what images to publish are moot, resembling the futile acts of paternalism a father might inflict on his 24-year-old son who moved out three years ago. It’s a wonderful spectacle, it makes news editors and producers feel important, but it no longer means much.
(Warning: Graphic discussion ahead. If thinking about graphic news images disturbs you and you don’t want to be tempted by hyperlinks that connect to some famous horrific images, please click out of this page now.)
The prejudice against publishing ghastly images and footage was late to arrive in American media, writes Barbie Zelizer in her 2010 book About to Die: How News Images Move the Public. In the early 20th century, images of the dead and the dying were not uncommon in American newspapers. For instance, see the graphic news photo, “The Genesee Hotel Suicide,” which captures a suicide in mid-plunge, and which ran in the Buffalo Courier Express in 1942. Changing ideas about decency, good taste, and propriety pushed such images out of the popular press, she writes, attributing part of the impulse to the censorship of battlefield footage during World War II.
In an interview, Zelizer connects our death-image squeamishness with a growing respect for individual privacy and an increased disdain for voyeurism. But the media’s squeamishness is a “movable standard” that expands or contracts as needed, she points out, to provide catharsis–as in the case of the endless re-runs of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers–or to embolden nationalism. By way of counter-example, when the horrors of the Cambodian holocaust needed publicizing, bone-stacks of the murdered were widely published without much hand-wringing in newsrooms.
The public never got much direct say in the deadly images deliberations. Journalists, acting like an information guild, reserved the discussion and power to themselves. They ostracized—or at the very least marginalized—publications such as the National Enquirer for publishing the dead Elvis picture because it violated their unwritten standards and challenged their control.