It’s been several weeks since newspaper editors across the U.S. had to wrestle with which photo of the Paris attacks to run as the dominant image on the next day’s front page.
The Associated Press upped the ante by circulating several photos full of blood and undraped dead bodies -- the kind of images that most readers of community newspapers never see. But increasingly, especially after bombings in foreign capitals, the AP has offered a range of aftermath photos and let editors take their pick.
This contrasts with photos after acts of domestic terrorism – the AP photos from the Boston Marathon bombing were tightly cropped to avoid showing severed and mangled body parts.
Such photos, whether cropped or not, are still the most compelling, visceral way to tell the story of how much damage a bomb or a hail of bullets can cause. Throw in the fact that the victims are noncombatants, and the reaction such photos evoke can move public opinion more than any 1,000-word dispatch from the scene.
That’s also the case with natural disasters, especially when storylines includes victims being placed in harm’s way by feckless public policy. The photo of the body of the refugee child washed ashore with no one to immediately claim it galvanized entire European governments into action – at least for a few days.
Likewise, the absence of photos when the truth cries out for telling can also influence readers and their understanding of how the world really works. It was not until the photo of the napalmed, naked Vietnamese girl was spread across the covers of Time and Newsweek that Americans began to grasp what some war correspondents had been telling them for years – and their government had not.
Today, the Internet carries images of atrocities photographed by civilians and propagandists that circulate like wildfire as much for their prurient interest as their news value. Without any gatekeepers, photos can lose their context and their humanity very quickly. An ISIS beheading is committed against a real person with a real family and friends – except for verification purposes, its viewing breaks the bounds of civilized society.
On the other hand, visual elements are often the gateway to text, and therefore to reading, an act that engages the mind almost as much as a compelling photo can engage the heart.
In an age of disruptive technology and outdated business models, compelling photojournalism is just as endangered as investigative journalism. They are both staples of general purpose newspapers, which are giving way to niche print products and partisan broadcast media moguls masquerading as neutral journalists.
Should the blood and the gore make their way onto breakfast tables as a way for newspapers to compete? And anyway, can’t they be justified in the name of telling – or showing -- it like it really is? There’s a thin line between sensationalistic profiteering and shocking a complacent public into action against the atrocities being committed on the streets of Paris, Beirut and Baghdad. Even a community newspaper might someday need to cross it – let’s hope it’s not just because there is money in it.
Randy Wilson is editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. You can reach him at email@example.com or (928) 556-2254.