Warning: Graphic Content


The ethical obligations of publishing or releasing content that is disturbing or shocking is an ever-growing concern in our society not simply because we exercise a freedom of speech and freedom of press in America. In many circumstances, when a disturbing image or video surfaces at a news organization, there is uncertainty as to whether to release the content for the public to view. Liability is factored in. The individuals who would be directly affected by the publication- from the photographer to the families of whoever is in the media must be factored in. The effect it will have on whomever views the content, including children. There should be (and there is) in place thorough discussion and debate regarding publication. But in many circumstances, the content is released. The importance for the public to see and understand outweighs how shocking that content may be, in many circumstances. Of course, there are just as many if not more instances where photos are not released for being too graphic or disturbing, or plainly irrelevant.

Bill Mitchell argues that, “Our perception of images is influenced by many other factors, including the power of our imagination, past memories, and personal fears.” (Mitchell) If images only provided information, we wouldn’t need them to tell a story. Images help provide content to a story, but they also provide context; the realities of a situation or event that invoke the emotions and feelings that text sometimes cannot. But at what point do we draw a line in the sand? At what point does an image become too graphic or disturbing to show? It comes down to the decisions and morals of the editor. There is no set rule on publication of disturbing images; what is considered shocking by one may be mundane to another.

But what about in the cases of individual’s that are considered ‘enemies of the state’? Do the people who have committed horrible acts against humanity deserve the same discussion if an image surfaces of their death or corpse? Or does the news organization holding the image have a moral responsibility to reveal the images under a public necessity? I don’t believe news organizations hold any moral responsibility to release the images of the deaths of enemies of the state and publishing such images would instead show a lack of moral restraint and objectivity. There are three major instances where this very topic was argued and all three have occurred within the last ten years.

In 2006, a video surfaced on YouTube of the hanging of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity in the murders of nearly 150 Iraqi Shi’ites in 1982. Officially released footage of this event ended just before the hanging, but an amateur video taken on a mobile phone was uploaded to YouTube that showed the moments before Hussein’s death, the hanging, and a close-up of the corpse, including his face. One video link currently has over two million views.

In 2011, Muammar Gaddafi, former revolutionary and leader of Libya, was killed when his own people overthrew his government. Gaddafi was a controversial figure around the world, with some applauding his anti-imperialist administration while others condemned him for violating the human rights of his people and supporting terrorism in other nations. Several videos of his death were released online; all showing different attacks on Gaddafi by the Libyan people. The first shows footage of Gaddafi alive, stumbling and being dragged toward an ambulance by armed men. The video appears to show Gaddafi being stabbed repeatedly in the rear end with a stick or knife. Another shows Gaddafi, stripped to the waist, suffering from an apparent gunshot wound to the head, and in a pool of blood, together with jubilant fighters firing automatic weapons into the air. A third video, most likely shot after his death, shows him being stripped naked and jeered at by his captors.

The third and final example is Osama Bin Laden. On May 2, 2011, a top secret American mission was conducted in Pakistan that raided Bin Laden’s compound, killing the leader of Al-Qaeda and salvaging his corpse. Shortly after it was reported of his death, official releases stated that Bin Laden had been given a burial at sea. Alleged photos of Bin Laden’s mangled face began appearing online soon after his death, claiming legitimacy. Newspapers and news organizations around the world published the photo depicting a bloodied, disfigured face of the former terrorist. The photo turned out to be a fake. But the legitimacy of the photo is irrelevant; around the world, this photo was being publishing under the belief that it was really his dead face.

In all three of these circumstances, news outlets showed the images of these people dying. The videos played on several television news networks, including the multiple Gaddafi videos. A warning by the anchor of the graphic content preceded each of the broadcasts, however. But I maintain that simply advising the audience to look away whilst still broadcasting these images is a scapegoat. There could, of course, be steps taken to prevent the ease of viewing. Newscasters could suggest visiting their website to view the disturbing content. This would alleviate the worry of someone unintentionally finding and viewing the content without knowing what to expect. But does that justify showing the videos and (fake) image?

I don’t think that it does. As members of the news, we have an obligation to report and update the public on current events, tragedies, and many times death. The public relies on news in many different forms to present the day’s events with accurate and up-to-date information. The news has an obligation to expose and reveal aspects of the world that may be hidden or unknown, and to do so in an accurate and objective way. But the keyword in that statement is ‘objective’. Objectivity is the cornerstone of journalism; we have issues in our news media currently regarding subjectivity and bias, but the field as a whole relies on the idea of objectivity to deliver truth. In releasing the death images of these enemies of the state, we are abandoning objectivity in favor of petty revenge. The publishing of these images and images like these (of enemies of state) are not treating these individuals as human beings; instead they are demonizing them as beneath the rest of us. These men are different from us, and should be remembered as such. The problem with this belief is that journalists are in no place to declare such statements. Journalists must remain objective to all sides of a story or event; disregarding personal opinion or emotional attachment in favor of truth and accuracy in reporting. These men and men like them are very much human beings, and they very much are similar to the rest of us. And if we wouldn’t publish the death videos or photos of average civilians or even soldiers, we cannot justify publishing the death images of enemies of state, regardless of how horrible their crimes against humanity may have been. It is easy demonize; it is difficult to humanize.



Mitchell, Bill. “The Importance of ‘Disturbing Images’.” International Center of Photography. 2 September 2002.

Outing, Steve. Web Shouldn’t Avoid Horrific Images. 16 April 2003.

Silverman, Craig. Notes on Faked Photos. 13 May 2011.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s