Two Deaths, Two Contexts

In Baghdad, Chancellor Keesling, a 25-year-old soldier from Indianapolis, shot and killed himself. In Tehran, Neda Agha Soltan, a 26-year-old student, was shot and killed as she watched a peaceful protest.

Two very different deaths, two very different news stories, but both required context to express or arouse anything but pain and loss.

In the case of Keesling's death, the Indianapolis Star's Robert Annis wrote a story quoting Dart Center research director Elana Newman to understand how the details of Kessling's life and death, as a soldier struggling with a failing relationship, fit into a broader pattern.

Professor Elana Newman of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma said half of the soldiers committing suicide had recently ended a relationship.

Recognizing the problem, the military has created a suicide prevention task force and recruited additional psychological and behavioral health counselors.

"It's a big problem in the military, but the Department of Defense is really committed to solving it," Newman said.

While Keesling's death became a story by virtue of news media coverage, Soltan's death was captured on graphic, amateur video and spread over YouTube and Facebook. CNN's Jessica Ravitz wrote a front-page story focusing on what's known about what's changed about graphic news images. Newman and Dart Center executive director Bruce Shapiro highlighted their long history, from Emmit Till to Virginia Tech, but also some of the ethical tensions.

The challenge today, in a time when anyone can post images, is making sure graphic photos or videos are put in context and used by news organizations in a way that moves stories forward, both [founding director of the Institute for New Media Studies Nora Paul] and Shapiro agreed.

While news outlets may blur faces, offer warnings to viewers or not even use some images, the vastness of the Internet means that once they are out there -- no matter how horrifying or inappropriate for viewers -- it's next to impossible to stop them from being circulated.

"Even if you try to control access, the dam is already broken," Paul said.

As for the impact on viewers, the effect of disturbing and violent images is hard to measure, said Elana Newman, who teaches psychology at the University of Tulsa and is a specialist in psychological trauma.

An image often can communicate "the depths of pain" in a way that words alone cannot, Newman said. But she added scholars often debate whether such images turn people away from news, desensitize them or bolster a story's credibility. And there is also the challenge to consider of "balancing the privacy of the victim with the importance of telling the story."

Her own opinion?

"These images are helpful when these events are far away," she said, because they can bring home a story. They, however, are "not helpful to people when they're in their own backyard."