I’ve seen more than enough images of young people who have died, and I don’t want to see any more. But the ubiquity of social media makes that pretty hard. Instead of having to seek out these graphic and disturbing images, the challenge today is to avoid them.
I am wary when checking out what my Facebook friends have posted, for fear that I’ll carelessly click on some link and find myself seeing an image I cannot easily forget. One friend had watched the horrible video from Virginia, then urgently advised his friends not to watch it. I suspect a lot of them did not heed his words and now they, too, have to deal with the searing videos.
Nearly 30 years ago, the Pennsylvania state treasurer, R. Budd Dwyer, called a news conference in Harrisburg to announce that he was resigning after being convicted of bribery. The usual crowd of around 40 reporters and photographers was there, but suddenly the scene turned into one that no person could have anticipated.
Dwyer pulled a loaded pistol from an envelope, gestured to the crowd to stay back, then put the gun in his mouth and fired, killing himself instantly. The shocked journalists saw and recorded everything, in words, sound, still images and video.
It is hard to remember this situation and not think of those young journalists murdered on camera this week by a gun-toting former colleague from Roanoke TV station WDBJ. Unlike today, back in 1987, when Dwyer died, there was no instant dissemination of the sounds and sights on social media.
Instead, editors and news directors had a role in mediating the news, deciding what would be printed or aired, and when. And they could change their minds, too. For instance, the suicide happened in the morning, and some Pennsylvania TV stations showed the entire scene during their noon news broadcasts.
By 6 p.m., though, some stations realized that it was just too graphic to show the actual suicide, so they stopped the images before the shot was fired but let the audio continue. In a way, that was an even more macabre way to tell the story.
Within a couple of days of Dwyer’s death, I launched a study of how newspapers used the photos transmitted by the wire services. As a journalism professor and former newspaper reporter and editor, I thought their use would say something about the newspapers’ attention to taste and sensitivity.
In a mail survey, I queried editors at 210 newspapers, most of them in Pennsylvania. I had a good response of 68 percent. The most graphic of the photos – of Dwyer slumped dead on the floor – was used by only 12 percent of the newspapers. Another graphic image – of Dwyer with the pistol in his mouth – was used by 25 percent. Other photos, less disturbing ones, were used more often.
The editors had comments that are interesting in relation to the Virginia killings. “The photos showed the horror of the event like no words could.” And, “We felt the suicide was the major news story of the day, and the photos the perfect dramatic illustration.”
But other editors, who were restrained in using photos, sounded cautionary notes. “We used one picture to identify Dwyer. We thought the story was graphic enough.” Another said, “The pictures we used illustrated the story without being gruesome.”
One editor wrote, “We believe our responsibility to our readers is to present an accurate visual record of what happened, but to do so with good taste.” Another said, “We did not use the after-the-shot picture because it seemed tasteless and superfluous.”
In a couple of cases, the newspapers actually were criticized by readers who wanted to see the most graphic images, which were not used. Those readers today would be the social media fans who seek out the images of death and click obsessively to see more of them.
I am saddened somewhat when I dwell on the differences between then and now. The instantaneous and unmediated world of social media has the terrible potential to harden users and to desensitize them to human tragedy. There is simply no value in looking at images of death, so easily available but so potentially damaging.
I often tell my students to think before clicking, logging in or doing whatever takes them to their preferred social media sites. It is a challenge, especially for young people who exist in a digital world I can barely grasp, to show discretion in seeking out stimulation.
But even in that world, there remains a role for kindness, care and good taste.
Bob Kochersberger teaches journalism at N.C. State University.