When the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC aired footage of American casualties in Vietnam it became the subject of intense debate. Is it ok to air graphic images as long as those images aren’t of Americans? The program also aired the NBC footage of a South Vietnamese general executing a soldier of the North Vietnamese Army. Many of these segments were preceded with a warning that people might want to send their children out of the room.
The much celebrated civil war photographer Matthew Brady’s photos showed mostly dead Confederates. Similar debates have arisen about Iraq war, including civilian Iraqi children hurt and maimed, 9/11 victims, and the Boston marathon bombing. Across the Atlantic, European media freely displayed graphic pictures of Madrid bombing victims.
Are Europeans less squeamish? Is there some particular reluctance by American news media, something in our character or psychology, or in our business model, that resists this? And in a digital world, where images circle the globe at the speed of fiber-optic light, is our handling of these upsetting and powerful images any different?
Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcasting and online journalism at the Poynter Institute, and the author of “Aim for the Heart: A Guide for TV Producers and Reporters”
Kenny Irby, founder of the Poynter Institute’s photojournalism program and former deputy director of photography at Newsday