What the Parkland Students Wanted the World to See—But the Media Didn't

(Twitter: @Melody_Ball)

A screenshot from a cell phone video by a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The school shooting last week in Parkland, Florida, was unlike other mass shootings in one remarkable way: Many of the students disseminated images of the event on social media as it was still unfolding. That included some videos in which the bodies of victims could be seen, which confronted the news media with a problem they have been grappling with for as long as photographs have been reproduced in the news. Should they show dead bodies? Is it necessary information, or is it too upsetting for audiences to see? Does it enhance or detract from the story? What principles should guide those decisions?

Jessica Fishman, a behavioral and social scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, explores these issues in her new book, Death Makes the News: How News Media Censor and Display the Dead, for which she analyzed large volumes of news coverage, and also interviewed photojournalists and editors about why they make the choices they do. I spoke to her about Parkland and the way death is shown to, and hidden from, American audiences. The interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Paul Waldman: After the Parkland school shooting in Florida, we quickly saw the viral spread of videos taken by the students showing the bodies of their classmates, but news organizations showed very different pictures. Were the media sticking to a set of standards they established long ago, even as social media have changed what's possible for the public to see?

Jessica Fishman: Yes, the student videos spreading through social media are providing a much fuller photographic record than the news media will permit. Since the birth of photojournalism, the news media have praised the picture's power to document and reveal, but when reporting on tragedy, the cameras are used to conceal death. In the U.S. news media, images of a corpse are exceedingly rare.

Ironically, the news media are commonly criticized for exploiting and sensationalizing the dead, but the bodies are actually carefully hidden. The news media rely on pictures that euphemistically allude to a fatal event by showing, for example, the destruction of inanimate objects, an injured but clearly alive victim, or a distressed survivor. When reporting on the recent mass shooting, the cameras have also focused on relatively mundane subjects, like a parked police car, the politicians offering "thoughts and prayers," and candles at a community vigil.

As you document in your book, images of corpses are exceedingly rare in news media, yet people believe that the news is saturated with images of death. Why do you think that misconception is so widespread?

Images documenting death may seem to abound because the words deployed by the reports create a vivid picture in our mind's eye. When reporting on tragedy, the news media use words to craft a very explicit account of death. Big, bold headlines, and breathless updates from television anchors update us on the latest death toll, while the accompanying stories specifically detail the terms of death, intimately describing the carnage.

The misconception about news images also persists because we love to hate the media. We assume that their commercial success depends on blood-splattered film. This is somewhat true for the entertainment industry, which has been estimated to show each of us 40,000 fictional deaths by the time we turn 18. Gory portrayals of death by the entertainment industry prove that Americans are not squeamish, but in the news media, even sanitized images of death are taboo.

Can you describe briefly the different way the bodies of dead foreigners and the bodies of dead Americans are treated in the news media?

As a general rule, the dead are not shown but there are a few exceptions that expose the intense power of nationalism. The vast majority of the postmortem pictures published document foreign victims.

The foreign corpse is shown because it is considered part of an editor's noble pursuit to document the facts and reveal the magnitude of loss. These postmortem pictures are also awarded Pulitzer Prizes. In contrast, the same types of images documenting American tragedies will not make the cut because they are dismissed as "pornography." Editors consider the same types of images as either newsworthy or not, depending on who has died.

One of the most fascinating stories you tell is of the iconic photo from the Oklahoma City bombing, of a firefighter carrying an injured toddler. The photo, which was everywhere right after the event, seemed to tell a story of compassion and caring in the face of tragedy, but once news organizations learned that the child in the photo had died, they abruptly stopped using it. What does that tell us about how the news confronts death?

News images are especially likely to hide the death of American youth. Essentially, all pictures documenting dead children show a foreign victim because a strong tribalism shapes what we consider newsworthy.

When the picture of the toddler in the arms of the Oklahoma City firefighter first ran in breaking news coverage, the reporting assured us that we were not looking at death. For instance, when The New York Times ran the photograph, the caption stated, "Emergency workers remove a child injured in the explosion." The image was widely used because it was thought to depict a child under protective care, now out of harm's way, thanks to the heroic actions of a first responder.

Initially, the photograph appeared in many news outlets, but then editors discovered that the child pictured had died soon after the explosion. Upon learning the fate of the child, editors grew concerned that the picture showed a dead victim, and they dumped the image.

When covering American tragedy, photo editors vastly prefer to publish images of the injured, rather than the dead. By focusing on the efforts of medical and law enforcement authorities to restore health and order, these images capture the hopeful side of tragedy. The pictures showcase American agency instead of the intractable inertness of death.

You write that at moments of mass tragedy here in America, editors feel the need to show positive images. What are they doing, and why?

When publishing a picture of a corpse, which almost inevitably shows a non-American victim, editors contend that it is important to lay bare the dire nature of the situation. They argue that these kinds of "unsettling" images should be shown precisely because they harness the horror. The ugly reality is considered essential to the story and to the broader mission of the press.

However, during domestic crises, the same editors feel it is important to show "positive images" that capture hopeful scenes, where first responders rescue the injured, and ordinary citizens hug tight in supportive embraces. When America is responding to a domestic crisis, editors prefer images that signal the nation's power to overcome, and symbolize the good that triumphs over evil. During a major domestic crisis, like the mass shooting in Florida, they virtually ban pictures of the corpse, as if it would flatten the nation's self-image.

The book argues that how we literally view the world—what we see, and do not see—is dictated by nationalistic impulses. In the most fundamental sense, regarding matters of life and death, the news media are drawing sharp distinctions between Americans and others.

Do you think news organizations should publish more photos of dead people in general and American dead specifically?

I think there should be less self-censorship, because the goal of the news media is to thoroughly report on important events, and death is a very important event. Pictures provide a different and important way of knowing, but they are used currently to conceal what matters most.

The most common argument in favor of censorship claims that censorship helps protect the surviving family members. However, many of these survivors want photojournalism to shine a bright light. For example, there are many U.S. military families who want Americans to see these pictures, so that we all intimately confront the real cost of war. It is also conceivable that the censorship of the American carnage enables our complicity with gun violence, even as mass shootings overwhelm our nation's schools.

Some support censorship because they believe the press should paternalistically protect audiences from what may be unsettling. In this model of the press, a few, select gatekeepers should shield the rest of us from harsh realities. A competing model allows the public to confront and consider the facts for themselves. This latter model, which I find more compelling, cautions against banning information.

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