“I never look at it. I can’t. I Googled myself once, and I looked at it and I was like, I can’t look at that. That just brings me right back to me laying on the ground.”
These are the expressions of Jeff Bauman, a Boston Bombings survivor who we remember from this graphic photo of him published on social media right after the catastrophic event. He is also referenced to as a hero, since he helped the FBI identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The picture is graphic in many ways, particularly as it shows he lost both limbs. There are many ethical implications and issues that can be explored regarding publishing this photo. Journalists, photojournalists, and others working on news organizations have the responsibility to confront us with the truth, not hide it from us. They do so by narrating stories. These stories help readers understand reality. Even though publishing these photos is disturbing, journalists may feel they need to show the different sides of the story and different perspectives, so that readers get an easier understanding of the big picture. However, there are many ethical considerations regarding whether or not to publish these types of images. I will address some of the most important ones to conclude that there was no reason to publish this photo.
One of the ethical implications is the debate between privacy and public interest. While a man is struggling with shock and pain, why is it necessary to spread such an image as he deals with this devastating situation, in which he probably was not even reasoning what was happening? Is this the only way of telling people the story about the Boston Marathon Bombings? Maybe they could have used his photo without showing the limbs and put something on the text to describe what happened to him. Isn’t the image too graphic or it’s essential to tell this story? According to Bloodshed in the news – dealing with graphic images, “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” Another question is, do they need to exploit a tragic event to inform the public? Is a man’s right to privacy lost because the incident happened in a public place? How ethical is it to publish this image without his consent? I don’t think so and one reason is that it may be distressing to his family, particularly when they learned about what happened to him through social media.
According to Family Of Jeff Bauman, Double Amputee In Viral Photo, Learned Of Injuries On Facebook, Jeff’s father got a call from his stepdaughter asking him, “if he had seen the picture.” It was at that moment when he turned to Facebook and saw the viral photo. This means the publishing of the photo left no time for the family to be contacted by the authorities. Because of speed and immediacy on social media, they learned about this. Journalists know this about social media. They know news travel faster than with traditional media. However, because they are in a rush to publish the best content, they do not stop for a second to analyze how this can impact a victim’s family. Another thing they don’t analyze is how can the photo impact the victim, considering emotional effects and dignity. I started this post with a quote from the injured person, which clearly portrays how disturbing and traumatic the photo still is and how he can’t even look at it. Photos published on social media are also permanent and victims struggle with post-traumatic stress. Doesn’t anyone stop to think about this for one second? The other distressing part for both the family and the victim is the fact that the photo is way too graphic, explicit, and gruesome. The mental well-being of both should be taken into consideration, as well as the fact that they needed to grieve and let it sink in.
I have a question for journalists and for all of us. Does social media make us more hungry for this type of content? Do these images make us and the victims more or less human? Are we more curious because we have access to more information, which we can access faster? I think these circumstances should be approached with more sensitivity. I think such images are not essential to tell a story, as they are not the only option to use in the narrative. German journalist Simon P. Balzert composed a code of ethics for the use of graphic images. Some of the guidelines include publishing more emotionally appealing and least shocking images and not publishing solely for its shock or entertainment value. On the contrary, it should be published because it’s newsworthy and pertinent.