Do we really need to see photos of mass shootings?

In 2017, Jason Fagone wrote for HuffPost’s “Highline” about Amy Goldberg, a leading trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital, in Philadelphia, which treats more gunshot victims than any facility in Pennsylvania. Fagone wanted to find out what she knew about gun violence—the “visceral sense of what physically happens inside a person when he’s shot,” as Fagone put it—that the average American does not. Goldberg initially told Fagone that any article he might write would be pointless; only graphic images, she said, would convey such a visceral sense to a desensitized public and transform the gun debate. “The country won’t be ready for it, but that’s what needs to happen,” she said. “That’s the only chance at all for this to ever be reversed.”

Last week—following the fatal shooting of nineteen children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas—David Boardman, a former Seattle Times executive editor who is now dean of Temple’s journalism school, made a similar point. “Couldn’t have imagined saying this years ago,” he tweeted, “but it’s time—with the permission of a surviving parent—to show what a slaughtered 7-year-old looks like.” Boardman elaborated in an interview with Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein, arguing that there are moments in history—the 1955 images of Emmett Till’s brutalized body in Jet magazine, for instance, or the 2020 cellphone video showing the murder of George Floyd—in which “the visual reality of this sort of carnage may be the only way to really move citizenry and politicians to the action that clearly is needed.” Others, including the CNN anchor Jake Tapper and the former Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson, have since entertained the notion, too. “Can we imagine our loved ones, reduced to pieces of skin on the floors and walls?” Dorothy R. Novick, a writer and pediatrician, asked in an op-ed for WBUR. “We have to, in order to save them.”

Related: Three interviews, two press conferences, and an editorial on Uvalde

Others have disagreed, or at least offered ethical caveats. Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, told Klein that while he “generally supports” the sentiment behind calls to show graphic images, only relatives of victims, and not victims themselves, are able to consent. (“Perhaps it’s time,” Grueskin suggested, “to add a checkoff box to the back of our driver’s licenses, next to the organ-donation line, allowing one’s corpse to be publicized to showcase the horrors of America’s infatuation with assault weapons.”) Sewell Chan, the editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, told Klein that he, too, is sympathetic to the idea, but worries that showing such images could come across as “exploitative or unethical or unseemly,” eroding the human right to “dignity, even, or especially, in death.” The academic Susie Linfield and reporter Lucas Shaw have both argued, meanwhile, that showing such pictures could have the contrary effect to that desired by proponents of gun reform. “I suspect exposing people to graphic images,” the latter wrote, “would only make gun owners more inclined to keep them.”

In the case of Uvalde, this debate is hypothetical, at least for now—photographers were denied access to the crime scene, and authorities haven’t released any images of their own. As Fagone’s piece showed, though, the debate is neither new nor limited in its relevance. Yesterday, Elizabeth Williamson, the author of a book about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, wrote for the New York Times about the aftermath of that massacre, when relatives pushed for, and won, a new law barring the state of Connecticut from releasing graphic images of the victims to the general public, even in response to public-records requests. Lenny Pozner, whose son Noah was killed at Sandy Hook, told Williamson that he contemplated showing the world the damage that an assault rifle did to his child, then thought, “Not my kid.” Noah’s family did show his body to Connecticut’s then-governor, but in private, and with his wound covered. “Everything would just get amplified,” Pozner told Williamson, of the family’s decision not to make pictures of Noah public. “Hoaxers will have more things to deny, absolutists will have more things to say—and people who are traumatized by mass shootings will be more traumatized.”

Going even further back, the Rocky Mountain News decided, in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999, to go ahead and run a prominent (though not front-page) image of a dead student that a photographer for the paper had taken after hiring a helicopter to survey the scene, without first asking the student’s family. As John Temple, who was then the paper’s editor, recalled in a 2019 podcast interview with Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, the student’s mother was upset, calling the next day to tell Temple that she had learned of her son’s death from the newspaper. Eventually, though, she came to carry the photo in a pocket close to her heart. “We talked over months, and she told me that she still thought I was wrong to publish it, but she understood what I did,” Temple said. “Then, a year and a half after the shooting, she wrote me a letter and she said, ‘Y’know, I was wrong.… I’m writing you to tell you to have the courage to show people the truth about what’s really happening in our society.’”

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This debate might seem, at its simplest, to concern a simple, if agonizing, choice: to publish or not. Break it down, though, and it quickly becomes devilishly complicated. It’s reasonable to assess the calls for publication, first and foremost, in terms of impact on public opinion and policy, as this seems to be the explicit rationale of most proponents. Here, it strikes me, there is reason to be deeply skeptical. Policy does not reliably follow opinion—especially in such a dysfunctional democracy as the US. And even on the opinion front, and thinking globally, there is no clear formula by which a shocking image might move the needle. In 2015, a photo showing the body of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee who washed up dead on a beach in Turkey, sparked an outpouring of emotion and donations to refugee causes, but it did not lead to any longer-term reset in European migration discourse. Other horrifying images have had even less impact. In 2019, various observers said that a photo showing Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter Valeria, two migrants from El Salvador, drowned in the Rio Grande was America’s version of the Kurdi image. Less than three years later, do you even remember it?

Numerous advocates of showing photos of shooting victims—in the wake of Uvalde but also other tragedies—have pointed in particular to the images of Till’s open casket, given their powerful illustration, to a mass audience, of the horrors of lynching and subsequent galvanizing effect on the civil rights movement. The ongoing impact of the photos—a bill, named for Till, that made lynching a federal hate crime passed into law just two months ago—is proof that acts of bearing witness can help build change even in the (very) long term. But it also shows how thorny it can be to disaggregate the impact of images from a much broader-based struggle—and how rarely moments of collective shock are immediately transformational. Today’s information climate, of course, is very different from that of 1955. The online news cycle can coalesce our attention around horrifying images. It can also distract, manipulate, and bury.

As Jelani Cobb, the New Yorker writer and incoming dean of Columbia Journalism School, argued in the wake of Uvalde, past lynching photos “did nothing to [shock] the conscience of people prone to defend the practice,” while shooting photos in the present could, to a gunman’s “warped mind, serve as a sort of recognition. A solo exhibit.” The key question here, it seems to me, is who we’d be publishing these graphic images for. Do we really have sound reason to believe, in our present political climate, that powerful holdouts on gun reform would drop their opposition based on an image, or the popular reaction to it? If not, might such images merely serve to traumatize people who already believe in the urgent need for action? What if—rather than decisively shattering the repetitive, desensitizing media and political script that follows mass shootings—showing horrifying images simply becomes another facet of it?

At the very least, the likelihood that such images would lead to real change is uncertain enough that journalistic principles other than impact merit serious consideration here. Impact is not the only reason to argue for the publication of graphic photos; it’s possible to see doing so as a radical act of truth-telling, which is the function of journalism. Meaghan Looram, the director of photography at the Times, told Williamson that the paper aims “to balance the news value of an image and its service to our readers against whether or not the image is dignified for the victims or considerate toward the families or loved ones of those pictured.” On the latter score, relatives’ wishes clearly carry great weight. But these aren’t absolute either: they can change over time, particularly when formed in the crucible of intense pain and trauma. And, as Grueskin suggests, the consent of the victim should be paramount, too, and is even harder to obtain. Is it really fair to ask of a child, in particular, that the most visible legacy of their life be a gruesome, permanent online record of their death?

It’s hard to write a blanket rule here. It’s also possible to envision ways of approaching this debate that fall between the publish/don’t publish dichotomy. Would it alleviate any of the above ethical concerns if we published photos of victims that, while graphic, are not identifiable—or do the demands of dignity consist of something greater than recognizability? Would it make a difference if we showed photos of bodies but no gore—or, as various experts suggested to Williamson, gore but no bodies? (After Taliban fighters attacked a school in Pakistan in 2014, Williamson notes, news agencies released images of classrooms covered in blood.) As the Pozner family did after Sandy Hook, parents have ways of confronting elected representatives with the costs of their inaction without having to traumatize the broader public. Journalists, for our part, still have words, and it would be a mistake to think that we’ve all exhausted the many ways we might use them to illustrate horror without needing to show images. Fagone’s 2017 story was reshared widely last week. It was not pointless, even if gun violence persists.

My personal, visceral reaction to the publication debate is not especially constructive, but, given the knottiness and bleakness of the question, that doesn’t seem inappropriate. It is, simply, to ask what sort of country needs not only to know that a classroom full of children was brutally massacred, but to see it, too—and to ask again whether this is really a country that an image might redeem. Two years ago this month, shortly before Floyd was murdered, my then-colleague Alexandria Neason made a related point in the context of police shootings of Black Americans, after noting that the victims who have gotten the most attention have tended to be those whose death was recorded on video. “The videos draw focus to cases—and clicks to websites—but they are also used as a way to spark apathetic white and other non-Black people to action, at the expense of subjecting Black people to the trauma of witnessing violence against their communities,” Neason wrote. Ultimately, “Black people have never needed video footage to be convinced of a problem.”

On Sunday’s edition of Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked Tony Montalto whether he would be comfortable with the public seeing pictures of his daughter Gina—who was murdered in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018—in the name of a new “Emmett Till moment.” Montalto said he would not be, then made a different suggestion for demonstrating the destructive power of heavy weapons. “People who like them should imagine what they do to the bodies of children in schools,” he said. “We do need to have a look at ourselves.”

Below, more on Uvalde and shootings:

  • Local media: The New Yorker’s Rachel Monroe spoke with staffers at the local Uvalde Leader-News about having to cover the worst day of their lives. When Monroe visited the paper’s offices, the staff had just received confirmation that Lexi, the daughter of one of the paper’s reporters, Kimberly Rubio, had been killed in the shooting. Rubio asked Craig Garnett, the paper’s owner and publisher, if she could write Lexi’s obituary and include two photos. Garnett gave her an entire page.
  • Regional media: Today, at 12pm Central Time, Texas outlets including the Texas Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Austin American-Statesman, and the Dallas Morning News will silence their social media accounts for twenty-one minutes in tribute to the twenty-one victims of the Uvalde shooting. The Tribune has also compiled a list of ways to donate money to the community; you can find it here.
  • National media: On the cover of its Sunday Review section, the Times reprinted the headline “Authorities said the gunman was able to obtain the weapons legally” fifteen times, using small print underneath each line of text to show that the same was able to be said of fifteen separate shootings dating back to an attack in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012. “We have created a museum of unbearable sorrow,” Jay Caspian Kang writes, of shootings in America. “With each tragedy, it gets a bit denser with new names, new unsatisfying explanations and new photos of the deceased.”
  • Everyone: For The Guardian, Dani Anguiano describes the scene after reporters from every type of news organization descended on Uvalde to cover the shooting’s aftermath. “Residents welcomed the sudden surge of journalists as a sign of support, but were also utterly overwhelmed,” Anguiano writes. “Teachers and family members of the victims say they have also been bombarded with phone calls from journalists and knocks at their doors. The constant questions about the fresh tragedy can be painful, residents say.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: 21 chairs, flags and crosses are displayed in front of local businesses on May 30th, 2022 in Uvalde, TX. They each honor the 19 students and two teachers killed in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX. (Photo by Joshua Guerra/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)