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Viewer Discretion Advised

Arts & Culture | December 8, 2014

The entertainment landscape is dominated by spectacle; violence, gore, and gratuitous sex are preferred. In the news media industry, which ostensibly has the onus of informing the population, graphic images are considered taboo and draw volumes of complaints from offended viewers—mostly when the content depicts subjects who are familiar in appearance, values, and proximity to the complainer. However, there seems to be far less objection when images of violence, sickness, and death are the faces of far-removed conflicts in exotic places. The discrepancy between an episode of Criminal Minds and a segment on CNN—or the difference in coverage between a natural disaster in New Orleans and one in Haiti—emphasizes the ethical choices the media makes for the viewer everyday.

In The Atlantic’s “What’s With the US Media’s Aversion to Graphic Images?” journalist Conor Friedersdorf writes, “The retreat from graphic photography seems partly the result of increased timidity about offending the audience. Overall, Americans say that they disapprove of the dissemination of graphic war images.” But how can that be true when the same Americans are gorging themselves on Game of Thrones and Grand Theft Auto? Is it that Americans object to violence, or just real-world violence?    What complicates the matter more is when that violence could have occurred at the hands of Americans themselves. Perhaps that’s why photographer Kenneth Jarecke’s 1991 photo of an Iraqi soldier burned alive during Operation Desert Storm never made it to the pages of any American publication, despite passing numerous—if not every—major editor’s desks. The photo, which depicts a man clawing his way out of a truck, is the stuff of horror films; his skin is left in charred lumps encrusting blackened bone. His face, a mottled skull, is singed with an everlasting sneer of contempt-filled agony. While these photos are kept from the public under the pretenses of protecting viewers—especially younger viewers—from such disturbing content, the lack of visual representation of violence leaves us confronting the lifeless vocabulary of headlines.

The ethical obligation that news organizations use to justify the exclusion of this graphic content, however, appears to be distinctly an American one. In other countries, it is commonplace to find a major newspaper replete with this kind of macabre visual fare. For example, while the photo of the burned Iraqi soldier failed to reach the pages of any American publication, it was published by a British magazine and a French newspaper. Why is it, then, that American media refuses to give a face to death? Jarecke’s photo incidentally communicates an American culpability attached to the scorched man’s loss of life, a guilt that unnerves the American resolve and support behind war. Perhaps, Americans put a different price on the lives of those abroad, or at least on the value of non-Western lives.

While many have pointed fingers at American media for the tireless print coverage of the American Ebola victims, few have decried the comfort with which news outlets print photos of African victims—the body bags, mass graves, and sickly corpses that paint our screens. While not overtly “graphic,” these images do not afford these victims the same deference that we grant to our American victims of sickness and violence. The New York Times photo of a four year-old Ebola victim, lying on the ground of an abandoned hospital, underscores how myopic the American media gaze can be. Would we see the same glassy pair of eyes staring back at us if the little girl were a white American citizen? Most would shudder, for example, at the prospect of documenting the victims of Sandy Hook.

In a 2010 NPR interview, an official for the Washington Post, Andrew Alexander, discusses the Post’s relatively graphic documentation of the devastating 2010 hurricane in Haiti. When asked if the same level of content would be published by the Post had “the earthquake happened in Sweden,” Alexander draws comparisons to the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, admitting, “the Post did not show, to my knowledge, explicit images from Katrina.” While some would counter that the strict security restrictions on US disaster sites limit photographic opportunities, the disparity of photographic media coverage on ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ death—or, as NPR host Neal Conan euphemistically puts it, “people who are far away and different from you or me”—is gaping.

Few would argue, even in supporting a more inclusive standard for graphic photography and footage in the media, that they would want the front page of their Sunday newspaper or their television screens to mirror the atrocities flaunted on TV shows and in video games. There is a certain deference afforded the dead in Western culture that condemns the publication of these images. Says cultural critic Theodor Adorno of this kind of visual record of death, “The victims are turned into works of art, tossed out to be gobbled by the world that did them in.”

Adorno’s point is writ large in the newly released film, Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a freelance video-journalist, Lou Bloom. Lou trolls LA streets, recording grisly accidents and local crime with his camcorder and an unnerving maniacal fervor. The dynamic between Lou, his other “nightcrawlers” in the industry, and the news stations depicts a world where the only barrier between American viewers and death is a few pixels distorting the victims’ faces. “Picture [our news station] as a woman running through the streets, screaming, with her throat cut,” says the fictional news director. In the film’s misanthropic landscape, not only are victims turned into Adorno’s “works of art,” they are relegated to cogs in the capitalist machine, fueling salaries, TV ratings, and whetting American viewers’ voyeuristic appetite for death. Effectively, Nightcrawler comments on what Friedersdorf calls “‘war porn’ or ‘disaster porn’…[that] titillates and excites our darkest selves.”

Thus, there exists an ethical conundrum implicit in the media-sanctioned propagation of graphic visual content. The Internet, after all, in its eternal role of mass equalizer, gives everyone an all-access pass to all the graphic material one’s heart desires. Major news outlets may still retain a dominant grip on the historical narrative, but they no longer enjoy their monopoly of yesteryear. As another Atlantic journalist, Torie Rose DeGhett, argues, “If anything, today’s controversies often center on the vast abundance of disturbing photographs, and the difficulty of putting them in a meaningful context.” In a click of a button, any interested party could call up entire albums of the victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash in the Ukraine in July: bodies strewn in corn fields, mutilated corpses, errant stuffed animals and travel books of deceased owners. This accessibility raises the question: is it necessary for newspapers and television programs to broadcast these disturbing images if they are so readily available? Where is the line between graphic content for shock value’s sake—effectively, “disaster porn”—and graphic content for information’s sake?

In an article enumerating the ethical struggle behind these difficult choices, Guardian photo editor Roger Tooth writes, “If you had died a violent and unjust death, wouldn’t you want the world to know all the details surrounding that death? On the other hand, in showing those images, are we perhaps feeding a propaganda machine and fuelling more conflict?” Evidently, the moral dilemmas inherent in this decision-making are convoluted and often come with a host of unintended consequences. Still, condemnation and exclusion of graphic content from news outlets strikes a strange chord in a world that rewards gratuitous violence and sex for the sake of art. As a news consumer subject to the 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy to trade representation for fact, especially in a media climate where political biases are becoming increasingly more blatant and sensational headlines are rewarded with copious clicks. Behind every article, every headline, and every photo, there is a board of editors and executives making decisions about how to shape what you read, see, and how you perceive the world around you.