Exploring the ways major news organizations photograph tragedy among their audience versus that of ‘other’ people can spur dialogue around a number of critical issues in news media and journalism studies. The goal of this activity is to inspire students to think about the interconnected nature of world views, representation, and audience attention in editorial decisions on publishing photographs of tragic events.
Reading: Students should read each of these articles before the discussion (I assign them as reading homework):
Article 1: On the night of October 1, 2017 a gunman shot at an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas from a top floor of a hotel, killing 59 people and wounding 413. The New York Times ran this story on October 2, 2017.
Article 2: On January 15, 2019 armed extremists entered a hotel in Nairobi killing 21 people and injuring another 28 people. The New York Times ran this story on the same day.
Articles 4 & 5: News stories from BBC and NPR that describe the backlash over the January 15, 2019 article. These give context to the controversy over the photos.
Article 5: Article from Poynter defending the NYT photo selection.
Article 6: Editor’s response to backlash around the January 15, 2019 article.
Potential Discussion Questions:
- Should news organizations show death and gore? What are the arguments for both answers? (Hopefully this discussion brings up questions around the role of news and the potential for harm)
- How long should news organizations wait following the event to publish photos that could identify victims? (What is reasonable for the sake of public interest and does that change depending on the circumstance?)
- Should the faces of victims, particularly dead people, be shown? (Benefit vs. harm; how about children?)
- Why is the difference between the photo coverage in each of these stories significant? Do you agree with the arguments against publishing the photos in the January 15, 2019 story? Why would a major news org seem to cater to one group / demographic at the expense of another? (Could prompt discussion about representation and also how news orgs are more sensitive to its own readership in order to preserve its audience, which ties into the funding model of news and how it can impact the content that is published)
- What kind of warnings should be displayed for audiences that may be disturbed by photos? (How should news orgs prepare and defend their publication choices?)
- What do you think of the editorial response from NYT? Does this article justify their decision to run the photos? What other questions, if any, would you like answered in this response?
I find it helpful to guide non-sociology students through the idea that news and ethics are socially constructed and that there is really no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think about the answers to these questions, rather to understand all sides of them and grapple with the idea that there is no perfect solution. News content is socially constructed and, therefore, can never be perfect. I also think it would be interesting to hold a class debate on this topic, although I haven’t tried it.