The Newsworthiness of Death


Unrest and regime changes result in breaking news, as well as controversial issues concerning violence and blood. Just in 2011, gruesome photos of two controversial leaders’ dead bodies made some media forget normal taboos of covering death. Reuters published a picture of Osama bin Laden’s dead body despite President Obama’s statement against releasing the photo. When Muammar Gaddafi died, graphic pictures appeared with little concern from the media. Sine Saddam Hussein’s execution was broadcast in 2006, the public has questioned covering death and the conflict with newsworthiness.

Many newsrooms have a rule of not showing blood on air, let alone those wounded dead bodies lying in a pool of blood. Journalists report news stories, yet they don’t want to offend the public, especially children. However, the regime-changed leaders’ final moments gave the editors a reason that was hard to resist, which is newsworthiness. Based on journalism principles, the first obligation is to the truth. Radio and Television Digital News Association Media Editor Ryan Murphy wrote in his article, “20 Ethics Questions to Consider Before Using Osama bin Laden Death Photos,” that many news directors said they would run the picture because of it is “clearly of historical significance.”  Publishing the photos would produce a more powerful report than just running a print story. The gruesome pictures did imply credibility and accuracy.

However, no matter how significant the news is, the dead leaders are still human beings. Should journalists treat the death of Gaddafi with the same basic standard of respect? Would there be anyone who run the pictures because they wanted to boost the sales by the gruesome image of a dictator who used to be powerful and proud? Many people call for respect for life so that “even Muammar Gaddafi deserved a private death.” Then what about the newsworthiness? When the traditional ethical rules encounter a need driven by newsworthiness, journalists fall into an ethical dilemma.  Although this kind of big news about a regime-changed leader’s death wouldn’t happen everyday, editors have to make the ethical decision every time they get some newsworthy yet graphic photos.

Today, reporters and editors are facing increasing pressures when they deal with the gruesome photos because of the proliferation of the Internet and social media. Information can spread within seconds, and those who have to make an ethical decision have little time to think twice. More importantly, just like what the news directors said in Murphy’s article: “Once it’s out there, it’s out there and individual media using it won’t make that worse.” Ethical consideration would make an editor hold a gruesome picture of a local accident, but when it’s regarding national breaking news that is pursued by every news outlet, the proliferation of social media pushes editors to release the photos.

While social media is changing the journalistic industry, I don’t think the ethical values are changed. If I were the editor facing the choice of to publish or not, I would say yes. Not running the pictures would only make my newsroom lose in today’s competitive media industry rather than keeping the bloody images from offending the viewers. However, I would be concerned with the ethical values; I would run the story on the front page but publish the picture inside the newspapers, or I would add an additional click to the picture if it’s online. In this way, my newsroom wouldn’t suffer much loss to the competing media outlets because the readers or the viewers can still get the breaking news on the front page. Meanwhile, the image of the dead bodies would not stand out in front.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Joan
    Mar 11, 2012 @ 07:31:19

    I don’t know how I feel about it. I remember the editor of the school paper in undergrad put a picture of someone’s blood on the front page after he got hit at the crosswalk. I told him it was distasteful and that he shouldn’t have published it. He was steadfast, but many people agreed with me.


    • michellegaotong
      Mar 15, 2012 @ 20:16:34

      I’m with you that blood on the front page would offend some readers. The problem could be more difficult for online media, for online newspapers’ front page, as there’s a lack of regulation. For other online media, people are free to publish the pictures, and those photos would be spread very quickly. Thanks for your comments!:)


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