By now we have disturbing images of Tuesday’s attack at a Jerusalem synagogue etched in our minds. Pools of blood amid the holy books, white prayer shawls soaked with red, and an arm, clearly dead, with the worshipper’s tefillin (phyllacteries) still wound around it.
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They are horrific images that perhaps drove home an awful reality. But are they the images that newspapers, websites and television channels should be showing readers and viewers? That is a debate in journalism that has been going on for decades, and which has reached new relevance in an era of social media sites and crowd-sourcing platforms where there is no hierarchy, and no editorial board to make decisions about what is and isn’t appropriate.
I’m troubled by how selective we are about what we find tolerable. During the war between Israel and Hamas this summer, I regularly kept tabs how the violence was covered by local and international media. Palestinian and international Arab news outlets such as Al Jazeera provided a steady dose of dead and dying Palestinians, often children, following each Israeli military assault. Israeli readers and viewers were usually spared the most gruesome pictures, because editors chose not to show them, instead devoting most of their airtime to the IDF’s successes and failures. If Palestinian and some international stations used mangled children in their promos – stay tuned for our continuing coverage – Israeli stations used footage of spectacular explosion over the Gaza skyline in almost jingoistic fashion.
Those of us who are active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram found ourselves exposed to a startlingly brutal stream of images that we sometimes wished we hadn’t seen, images that kept me up at night. I found myself pining for the ethics lectures we had with Stephen Isaacs, a giant of journalistic ethics who was the dean of Columbia Univeristy’s Graduate School of Journalism when I was a student there a little more than 20 years ago. Isaacs, who died in September, introduced us to the responsibility we bore in choosing details and images wisely. If they were to be more grotesque than they are informative, we ought to ask whether we are shedding light on the issues – or simply pandering to prurient interests or desensitizing the public to violence.
I have never been a fan of white-washing the truth. And I think the media play an important role in bringing a true reflection of conflict and terrorism to readers and viewers. Americans’ opinions were swayed during the Vietman War when they saw the photo, taken by AP photographer Nick Ut, of a nine-year-old girl running naked on a road after being severely burned by a South Vietnamese attack – it won the World Press Photo of the year for 1972. Kevin Carter’s photo of a vulture hovering near a starving Somali child shocked the world to action in that country; The photo won a Pulitzer Prize 1994, and Carter committed suicide a few months later.
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s remarkable how selective each side is in promoting images that show the other side’s brutality, or in avoiding the use of images that humanize the “other” and their suffering. While most Israeli sites and channels showed gory, hard-to-look at stills and footage of the synagogue attack, Palestinians outlets like al-Hayat al Jadida, the PA’s official paper, featured a distant photo from the outside the scene in Har Nof, ZAKA workers, and a Palestinian mother holding her framed “shahid” image – a photograph of her son, who was one of the two attackers from East Jerusalem’s Jabel Mukaber.
The international media sometimes broadcasts violence unevenly. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett tried to make that point on the BBC Tuesday when, in an live interview, he held up an image of one of the victims, lying in a pool of blood. It’s not clear what was more embarrassing: Bennett trying to steal the show with his own props, a la Netanyahu at the UN, or the BBC interview abruptly interrupting him to say, “We don’t want to actually see that picture, if you could take that down.” Jake Wallis Simons, a popular British journalist and novelist, tweeted soon afterward: “BBC refuses to show picture of murdered Jewish worshipper. Didn't have a problem with dead Gazans, I recall.”
The Poynter Institute, a center for journalistic ethics and practices based in Florida, notes in one column on the issue that decisions about what to run are always a gray area. For example, a CNN editor asked, were those images of the World Trade Center being destroyed on 9/11 – and the horrific images of people leaping to their deaths – a source of additional trauma for many Americans? Or did they simply reflect a reality that while deeply disturbing, was too relevant to hide from viewers?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do wish we would stop seeing the proliferation of images that seem more aimed at evoking outrage than informing the debate. Perhaps it’s time we open a wider discussion of what is and is not acceptable to publish or post.