The media must re-assess its picturing of terrorism

‘London Bridge attack, in pictures’, appeared as the headline on the front page of most news organisations on Sunday morning. In the wake of the horrific incident on Saturday evening which killed 7 people, and left many seriously injured, the media’s response was notably focussed on images of the attack, and profiles of the dead and missing. This has become protocol for the media’s response to terror, especially in the wake of the recent attacks on Manchester and Westminster, but the distress caused after Saturday’s events should make us question whether the use of such graphic imagery is ethical or practically useful.

Two weeks ago, the CEO of Getty Images, Dawn Airey, gave a pertinent talk on the subject ‘Is Seeing Believing: Lenses and Lies’ at the English Faculty. As Airey explained, the various ways in which images, and even live video, can be manipulated to warp the truth raises an interesting issue about journalists’ use of pictures, especially when reporting on terror. Airey used the photograph of the woman wearing a hijab walking past the victims of the attack on Westminster bridge in March as an example of how an image had been used out of context to support Islamophobic opinions. Whilst the image remained unedited, the way in which it was presented to many audiences was intended to portray a Muslim woman ignoring the suffering of British people, not as a horrified witness still in shock as she tries to come to terms with what has just happened before her eyes.

As the story about the Westminster attack developed throughout the day, every single major newspaper and news organisation in the UK had live feeds with titles such as ‘what we know so far’, and crucially, ‘in pictures’. Many of these images were extremely distressing, showing members of the public seriously injured, bleeding, dying, even dead. It is the ethics surrounding the use of such images that we should begin to question.

Images of victims in pain, or during their last moments of life, should not be plastered all over the internet.

Airey’s talk took place just hours before the horrific attack in Manchester. Following the same protocol as Westminster, more images and video footage were released by the press as details of what had happened became clearer over the next few days. Thousands of images showing children seriously injured and bleeding circulated the internet and appeared in print and on television. This inevitably raised questions over whether these images improve our understanding of the events that happened, and crucially, should we be releasing such horrific images to the public?

These images may be of use to the police and anti-terror organisations in trying to piece together what happened that evening, but the public do not need to see all the gory details. Images of victims in pain, or during their last moments of life, should not be plastered all over the internet. They are distressing, often contravene the wishes of those in the pictures, and may even compromise the investigation. Fake missing children profiles on Twitter and leaked information about the bomb and blast impact in the New York Times have been significant issues in the media’s response to the Manchester, and coverage of the London Bridge attack appears to be following suit. The media’s image-focused response to terror, with its emphasis on the shock-factor, needs more ethical controls. Journalists should start thinking about their own role in the country’s response to terror, and reassess their duty to the public’s interest.

I am not saying that images are not important. As the old saying goes, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, and humans can remember up to 65% of what they have seen, opposed to just 10% of what they have read. But a picture can be easily misinterpreted, it can be emotionally triggering, and it can identify people who may have no wish to be identified and questioned by the public. The media’s use of images should be careful and controlled. In the age of social media and ‘fake news’, distressing and false images will inevitably proliferate online, but news organisations have a responsibility to ensure that their use of imagery is verifiable, informative, and does not breach the privacy of anyone who may be pictured. Images should only be used where necessary, not as a sadistic form of glorification of the horror of terror.

As these attacks become more frequent, the media has a duty to reassess its response to terror. As Airey noted in the conclusion to her talk, we are living in an age where we can survey everything, and we must make a choice about what we want to see. Do we really want to see people at the moment of their death, and before their own families even know something has happened to them?