As voices continue to be raised on the ethics and morality of mainstream media use of disturbing and graphic images of Muammar Gaddafi in the moments before and after his violent death, a Reuters report offers some insightful perspectives on the issue.
The news agency says that the threshold for publishing gruesome images like those of Gaddafi’s death is falling as the internet and social media make many of the editorial decisions that used to be left to a small group of professional journalists.
The shaky video footage of Gaddafi’s last moments was such a dramatic end to Libya’s months-long struggle against its former dictator that many television stations around the world rushed to broadcast much of what they received.
Much of that shaky video footage was recorded on mobile phones.
Newspapers followed up on Friday morning, some splashing graphic photos of the bloodied former Libyan leader across their front pages while others opted for pictures of victorious anti-Gaddafi troops or file shots of Gaddafi in his heyday.
The montage image below shows the front pages of most of the national UK newspapers on Friday:
The online editions of those newspapers had these and more images, the publication and analysis of which continued into their weekend editions. Reuters notes:
Showing images of a person in the throes of death used to be a newsroom taboo, but even this is now giving way under the pressure of instant internet publishing and — thanks to camera phones — the increasing availability of strong news footage.
I agree with Reuters’ overall assessment – what we used to regard as beyond the pale is increasingly regarded as fair game to the extent that we are confronted with such imagery whether we like it or not. Plus, definitions of what is acceptable in contemporary society have changed hugely in recent years – look at something simple such as how we use the word ‘friend’ nowadays – and also vary widely depending on your national culture and specific circumstances, among other things.
Over the weekend, I watched “How Facebook Changed The World: The Arab Spring,” an excellent BBC TV documentary programme that I’d recorded on my DVR, presented by Mishal Hussain and first broadcast in the UK in two one-hour parts in September. The BBC describes it as “The story of how the Arab world erupted in revolution, as a new generation used the internet and social media to try to overthrow their hated leaders.” Countries and this year’s events covered include Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain.
You can get a terrific feel for the subject matter, and Hussain’s compelling presentation style, in this 15-minute clip:
(If you don’t see the video embedded above, watch it on YouTube.)
Whatever you might feel from watching the video – and there are some strong and disturbing situations presented – you will also very likely feel a sense of wonder at the ingenuity of people passionately driven for their cause no matter the terrible risks to life and liberty, and how technology gives them the means to communicate events with the connected world (which also helps you understand why regimes in those countries are keen to switch off the internet).
All of which is helpful when trying to rationalize that falling threshold in what content curators and others see as the permission point, as it were, for publishing. From the Reuters report again:
[...] “Tolerance for gruesome images is going up because more people search for them on the internet than we would have expected,” [Kelly McBride, ethics expert at the Poynter Institute journalism training center in St Petersburg, Florida] said. “So when it’s delivered to them by a publication, they don’t have the same righteous indignation.”
Still, she said, the main check on media from publishing shocking pictures is the backlash from their audiences. “U.S. audiences have the least tolerance for graphic images,” she said, despite the high level of violence they accept in entertainment films. “It’s a weird paradox.”
Welcome to the new media landscape.