Another school shooting, another round of debate on gun regulations. We’ve become accustomed to the cycle.

However, another discussion typically comes up around times like these in the communities of photojournalists and their editors: “How graphic,” as Poynter‘s Al Tompkins phrases the question of covering mass tragedies, “is too graphic?”

A little background- 


After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Slate published an article entitled “Show the Carnage,” urging Americans to “see the true effects of mass shootings” by viewing their bloody aftermath. The fact that so few Americans “see what the bullets do,” it argues, “might be part of the problem.”

It then goes on to quote former Attorney General Eric Holder who, in the wake of Sandy Hook, said of its visual documentation: “If the American people had access to those pictures, if the American people had seen those pictures, the calls for reasonable gun safety measures would have been passed.” 

Similarly, Kamala Harris, the Senator from California, said yesterday of viewing gun-related crime scenes: “When you see the effect of this extreme violence on a human body, and especially the body of a child, maybe it will shock some people into understanding this cannot be a political issue.”

Seeing the horrific results of violence, this argument goes, will serve to motivate citizens to seek its reduction.


Tompkin’s Take- 

Mr. Tompkins [Image Courtesy Poynter]

Al Tompkins, senior faculty of the Poynter Institute, has a different take.

He begins by noting both sides of the argument:

  • “We could argue,” he says, that “if the public, if elected officials saw the images as they really are, maybe we would have a more serious conversation about gun violence.” OR….
  • “….maybe, we should argue that showing the graphic images rewards the shooter and encourages others.”

Avoiding both extremes, Tompkins lays out a list of considerations for anyone thinking about publishing the images of a tragedy. Here are the ones relevant to photographers:

  • Why You Would Show a Graphic Image– A graphic image, he explains, is justifiable if “the truth is in doubt.” This goes for police shootings caught on phone cameras and other crimes which the perpetrators deny (not the case here.)
  • Why You Would Not Show A Graphic Image– The image, especially in school shootings, might involve a minor, whose parents need to be asked for permission. Further, as the knowledge of the crime becomes more widespread, graphic images meant to “break the news,” become less and less justifiable over time.
  • Tone and Degree While images can bring attention to something, they can also overdo it. Tompkins points to the example of the endless loops of children running from their school in terror being played on national TV. Eventually, he says, this will “have the effect of exaggerating the danger that students face in schools,” noting that, statistically speaking, schools are the safest places for kids to be.
  • Creating Celebrity– Granting that “some criminals flat out crave publicity,” Tompkins still advocates for making the accused’s name, and therefore image, public. While it may give them the celebrity they crave, the positives outweigh the negatives insofar as it allows greater discoveries like the “threatening social media pages that may have been posted by the accused,” to be uncovered by everyday citizens.


What do you think? 


Feature Image Courtesy Tony Webster