About News

Photos We Don’t Want to See, But Maybe Should

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

We spent part of Monday’s media ethics class talking about dead bodies.

The topic was prompted by some gut-wrenching social media photos of fatalities from Russia’s special operation to liberate Ukraine. (That’s how I’m referring to Vladimir Putin’s immoral invasion of a sovereign nation just in case Putin reads the Arenblog and decides to poison my Diet Coke.)

My very smart students nicely framed this longstanding dilemma of whether and when to publish such photos. Respect for the victims, compassion for victims’ families and the danger of exposing audience to upsetting images all dictate not to publish. But showing the truth of war – so that citizens of the world might insist their nations never engage in it – demands no withholding.

The New York Times picked its side of one such debate on Monday. It published the most awful of these recent photos – the bodies of a Ukrainian mother and her two children killed by Russian mortar fire as they fled from fighting – at the top of Page 1A of its print edition and on its website homepage. (I learned this after class and decided to write about it. I don’t pick class discussion topics based on blog subjects.)

The Times’ director of photography cited “our duty as journalists to show our readers an unvarnished and accurate account of the world’s events, which are sometimes very difficult to see but necessary to understand.” (Warning: If you click the link above or some of the links below, you’re agreeing to view disturbing images.) The Times photographer called her photo “disrespectful” to the Ukrainian family, but she considered it more important to impactfully document a war crime. That’s especially persuasive considering Russia’s denials of such crimes. Other journalists mostly praised The Times on social media.

There’s actually a long media history of photos of dead people that drew vast public attention. That’s not to say they all changed public opinion or brought about new public policy. Among them:

  • Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, killed by racists in Mississippi in 1955
  • Kent State student Jeffrey Miller, shot by the Ohio National Guard at a war protest in 1970
  • Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned during his family’s attempt to escape fighting in Syria by sailing to Greece in 2015
  • Oscar and Valeria Ramirez, a Salvadoran father and 2-year-old daughter who were seeking asylum in the US but drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande River into Texas in 2019

Also in 2019, The Times published a death scene photo from a terrorist attack at a luxury hotel in Nairobi, Kenya. The Times mostly caught flak from critics who claimed the newspaper never would have done the same for a similar tragedy in the US. Indeed, the many American mass killings perpetrated with guns have seemed off limits for that kind of coverage by the press. Reason No. 36 why gun control legislation goes nowhere.

I think younger generations are more OK with explicit visuals than older ones. Most of the students in our conversation this week saw justification. Virtually every student of mine who has chosen this issue for an ethics paper in the past few years concluded the same.

In 2019, a student at Columbine High School started a campaign called “My Last Shot.” Participants placed a sticker on their identification cards: “In the event that I die from gun violence please publicize the photo of my death. #MyLastShot.”

One of my department colleagues, Dr. Kaitlin C. Miller, has published research related to graphic images. She said the decision of whether to publish is never clear cut.

In theory, she said, this “taking” of intimate moments from people’s lives, including their deaths, is justified “for a greater good. To show truth about the world. To possibly evoke emotion and even positive change.” But the evidence shows that doesn’t happen.

“Sharing graphic images like that of killed Ukrainians does little to evoke change but does much to capitalize on the pain and suffering of others. This taking, thusly, seems unjustified,” Miller said.

Usually, a photo of death must meet certain criteria for an editor to deem it shareable: Not a closeup; no visible faces (The Times’ Ukraine photo Monday was an exception); and minimal blood and gore. Think about that last standard. Not unreasonable, and it keeps the complaints down, but it backpedals from complete truth.

The Ukraine government has held nothing back in its anti-Putin persuasion campaign of posting photos of dead, recognizable Russian soldiers on the internet and social media. The American press has mostly refrained from repeating these.

For the press, the particular communication platform matters. The Times’ decision Monday was debate worthy not just because of the decision to publish, but also because placement in such a prominent spot in the print edition and on the website homepage inevitably meant exposure to readers who didn’t intentionally seek out the photo and might not have wanted to see it. With digital platforms, at least, publishers have the option of a warning label and requiring visitors to consciously click a link. That seems responsible. Yet it also allows much of the public to avoid confronting a reality that we’d like to pretend does not exist.

The sanitized but still powerful visual journalism that emerges from war and other tragedy effectively creates necessary outrage. But perhaps because of the tenacious social and political obstacles to change, or because of the scope of the devastation, we feel helpless in turning outrage into corrective action. I don’t know that unmitigated photos and videos would change that.

I’d like to think that we don’t really need to see it in its most brutal form to understand the human atrocity that is war and violence. I may be wrong.


Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.