Self-Study Unit 3: Photography & Trauma
Photojournalists are part of the team of first responders whenever a tragedy occurs. They are there to document the news event in pictures and their work can have a strong and lasting impact on the public consciousness and themselves.
Because photographs can have an impact that words alone do not, photojournalism — the photographic documentation of a news event — plays an essential role in news reporting. Photos have the power to make people think, feel and take action. They may horrify, reassure, anger or take the breath away. While words can describe the aftermath of a disaster — a tornado, a plane crash, a school shooting — a photo visually communicates the pain etched in victims' faces, the mangled metal and strewn debris, the wounded bodies being rolled away on stretchers by paramedics. Of course, good writing can evoke strong emotions as well, but certain photos have an impact that is immediate and startling.
Rothstein writes that “the photographic image speaks directly to the mind and transcends the barriers of language and nationality” (1974, p. 15). In his book, Photojournalism, he defines photojournalists as “observers of people and events who report what is happening in photographs; interpreters of facts and occurrences who write with a camera; skilled communicators whose images are transmitted visually via the printed page” (p. 15). (See Part 2 of this online curriculum for a wide array of photos that have been recognized for their visual power.)
Photoeditor Bryan Grisby, in News Photographer, wrote about the philosophy of veteran writer-photographer Phil Douglis, who Grisby says believed that photojournalism had the potential to go beyond “routine documentation or illustration of day-to-day affairs.” Grisby quoted from an essay Douglis wrote in the mid-1970s, which said in part: “[W]hen … photographs contain content that confronts the viewer's intellect as well as his emotions, the reader can actually be provoked into an internal intellectual dialogue. The photo can stimulate his thinking instead of simply showing him what something looks like, or grabbing his attention. It can go far beyond the stated and often limited reason for appearing in the paper in the first place” (1996, p. 10).
Linking the visual image with emotions and cognition is clearly what many photographs accomplish. “In the blink of a shutter,” writes Seattle Times staff writer Melanie McFarland, “photographic images can dig out emotions even the most finely honed prose can't capture.” Reviewing a television documentary called, “Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs,” McFarland calls the show “reality television with real value.” In it, photojournalists talk about the photos that won them fame.
The documentary reveals that some photographers who shoot traumatic images find it painful to revisit the place where the photos were taken. Even years later, they find it difficult to talk about the images they captured on film.
Others compartmentalize their emotions. “In order for (Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer Stanley J.) Forman to shoot his winning photographs of a woman and child plummeting from a collapsed apartment fire escape,” McFarland writes, “he had to put aside his shock. Artistically the photo is a master work. Emotionally, it's terrifying to see a woman in the last moment of her life. (The child survived.)”
So photographs not only have an impact on readers and audiences, but on the photographers themselves.
The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma has not only focused on the effects of trauma on people who may be the subjects of news stories, but it has also looked at the effects that covering such stories can have on journalists. Photojournalists are part of the team of first responders whenever a tragedy occurs. They are there to document the news event in pictures. And their work can have a strong and lasting impact on the public consciousness.
This is the third module of the Dart Center’s online curriculum. Module 1 helps to explain what traumatic stress is and why it is important for journalists to know about its effects. This module looks more closely at the work of photojournalists and focuses more on those who work in print. Video journalists for television share many of the same issues discussed here, but their historical context and other aspects of their work are different and should be dealt with in a separate piece. The goal of this module — Photography & Trauma — is to examine the important work of photojournalists in the context of traumatic stress. It begins in part 1 with a historical overview of journalism and photography, and then continues with some examples of powerful photos in part 2, a discussion of potential trauma effects on photojournalists (part 3) and on their audiences (part 4), some tips for photojournalists (part 5), and a list of references for further study (part 6).
I. The History of Photojournalism
When specific photographs become symbolic of a particular event, triggering the public's memory (and related feelings and emotions) about that period in time, we can refer to them as enduring historical icons.
They represent something much larger and more complex than a literal historical snapshot. Rather they touch something deep within a large number of people that may make them sad, angry, happy, confused, afraid or a combination of these feelings. Photos, as anyone who has looked through a family album knows, can bring back memories and feelings from a time long past.
The fact that many people will be able to visualize the scenes below, all of which are descriptions of memorable historical photos, speak to the power and endurance of the photographic icon:
· The raising of the American flag by U.S. Marines at Iwo Jima. (Joe Rosenthal, 1945)
· Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby while being transferred to the county jail from the Dallas city jail. (Robert Jackson, 1963)
· Three-year-old John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting as his assassinated father's casket passes in front of him. (Dan Farrell, 1963)
· The South Vietnamese police chief’s street execution of a Vietcong prisoner, pistol inches away from the prisoner’s head. (Eddie Adams, 1968)
· The anguished female university student kneeling near a fellow student who was shot by a National Guardsman during a protest at Kent State. (John Paul Filo, 1970)
· The group of Vietnamese children, including a crying young girl running naked, fleeing in terror after their village was bombed with napalm. (Juyng Cong [“Nick”] Ut, 1972)
· Prince Charles and his new bride, Diana, riding in their horse-drawn carriage on their wedding day. (Douglas Kirkland, 1981)
· The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenge, with plumes of white smoke against a clear blue sky. (Michele McDonald, 1986)
· Elian Gonzales, in the arms of an adult, looking terrified as an armed federal agent confronts him in a Miami bedroom. (Alan Diaz, 2000)
These photographs and many others convey much more than just the picture on the page. Symbolically, some seem to represent the lost innocence of the time. Others suggest the naked brutality of war. Still others represent triumph and relief in a troubled world.
More recently, images of the two commercial jet airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center and erupting into fireballs have come to symbolize an unprecedented era of terrorism on U.S. soil. Photos and videos of this horrific event and the swath of destruction it left in its wake will likely be seared on the collective American psyche for generations.
As Americans try to cope with the reality of terrorism within their own borders, they will have this constant reminder flashed at them from their own memories and from the mass media. No doubt years, if not decades, into the future, that image will be shown over and over during anniversaries looking back at the morning of September 11, 2001, or during other times when the topic of terrorism is discussed in the news media.
The impulse to tell stories using pictures goes back thousands of years. Rothstein (1974) writes that “the concept of telling the news pictorially goes back to the wall carvings of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia … The great artists Hogarth, Goya, and Daumier were journalists, too. Certainly the concept of picture reporting is as old as man’s drive to tell a story through drawing pictures. The use of the camera merely makes the pictorial presentation of the information more efficient, faster, and available to more people” (p. 16).
The exact beginnings of photojournalism are uncertain. In the introduction to Lacayo and Russell’s book, Eyewitness: 150 Years of Photojournalism, Donald Morrison writes: “Though the birth of photography is commonly acknowledged as 1839, when news of the daguerreotype was announced, no one really knows when photojournalism was invented” (1990, p. 7). Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, a French stage designer and entrepreneur, and William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman with a wide range of interests, are two early pioneers of photographic technology. The more well-known Daguerre method consisted of using light and chemicals to produce an image on a silver-coated copper plate. His discovery was announced by the French Academy in January 1839. Talbot reported his method to the Royal Society in London at the same time.
In the book, Photojournalism, by the editors of Time-Life Books, the link between news illustration and photojournalism is made. “What is very likely the first specimen of the modern news picture appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1842,” the editors write. “Prophetically,” they continue, “in view of the nature of so many of the news pictures that have followed it, it showed an act of violence — a would-be assassin firing a pistol at Queen Victoria” (1976, pp. 12-13). The illustration was an artist’s rendition, but it was a drawing of fine details and action. It accompanied an article titled, “The Cowardly and Disgraceful Attempt on the Life of Her Majesty.”
The early years of “picture journalism” often involved sketching or even photographing (using daguerreotypes) a news event, and later drawing a rendition suitable for woodcutting. The carved woodblock would be pressed into clay, and then eventually a cast would be made using molten metal that, when hardened, could be used in a newspaper or magazine press. Hence, photojournalism did not perfectly coincide with photography but came decades later. The technology for transferring photos to paper for mass production did not mature until around the turn of the century. Moreover the relatively long exposure time made capturing action difficult to impossible. Until these and other problems could be resolved, artists and engravers continued to provide “picture journalism” for newspapers and magazines long after photography was invented.
Newspapers and magazines that included illustrations helped whet the public’s appetite for graphics with their written news. The rise of sensational newspapers in the late 1800s also fueled the development of news photography. On January 21, 1897, the New York Tribune published “the first halftone reproduction to appear in a mass circulation daily paper,” according to Time-Life’s Photojournalism. It was a “rather dull” photo of a New Yorker, Thomas C. Platt, who had recently been elected to the U.S. Senate (1976, p. 15). This time period was the beginning of photos appearing in print for a mass audience. The halftone process involved the manipulation of tiny dots of ink to produce the visual effect of various shades of gray. It was years before the half-tone process was widely used by the industry, however.
At the end of the first decade of the 1900s, photographs, reproduced using halftones, were filling the pages of newspapers and magazines, and photojournalism was on its way to becoming bonafide profession.
Today, few would argue that photojournalism contributes much to our knowledge and understanding of the world around us. One of the most important things that journalists do for society is to inform, and information is conveyed in words as well as in pictures. As stressed earlier, photos can evoke emotions. Reading about starving children may move some to action, but seeing vivid images of distended stomachs, skeletal limbs and plaintive stares somehow quickly hits people at the gut level. Perhaps the images are a closer reflection of ourselves than are words on a page. Photojournalism, then, not only informs, but also has the potential to literally move people — i.e., to make them take action.
But photojournalism can also be sensationalistic and manipulative. In 1928, Tom Howard strapped a camera to his ankle and secretly photographed murderer Ruth Snyder at the moment of her electrocution. The New York Daily News ran the photo with the headline “DEAD!” above it. The paper sold a half million extra copies that day. More recently, the darkening of O.J. Simpson’s mug shot on the cover of Time (which was apparent when viewed next to the unaltered photo used on Newsweek’s cover) gave rise to heated discussions about what the magazine did and why. Photographic manipulation has become considerably easier and more sophisticated, technically speaking, since the widespread use of digital media in newsrooms. Changes in photographs, even subtle ones, can intentionally or accidentally alter meanings and interpretations.
Scholars in the cognitive sciences have written on the factors that color one’s perception of reality. For example, Ann Marie Seward Barry, in her book Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image and Manipulation in Visual Communication (1997), asserts early on in her book that while our eyes are “truly wondrous windows on the world” and “[send] more data more quickly to the nervous system than any other sense,” we have to realize that the way our brains interpret the information involves a number of complex factors.
“[O]ur brains combine information from our eyes with data from our other senses, synthesize it, and draw on our past experience to give us a workable image of the world” (p. 15). This applies not only to photographs, but to television and artistic images as well. Barry says that we are “biologically tuned to overestimate certain aspects of perception, such as height compared to width” and are “rarely conscious of the variety of factors impinging on our perspective, especially those derived from subconscious and even primitive forces or from the vagaries of personal experience” (p. 16).
Hence, photojournalism, like its written counterpart, is not a completely objective enterprise. Photos of war-torn areas, for example, might evoke sadness in some for the human tragedy they depict, or anger in others for the perceived propaganda they represent. The very nature of photography requires that a photojournalist make decisions about what to include within the frame of his or her camera (either through the original framing or through cropping), or which, among so many photos, to select for publication. If this decision-making process is guided by professionalism and journalistic ethics, the end result is usually a photo that, as Rothstein puts it, has “the quality of truth and believability” (1974, p. 6).
II. Memorable Photographs
One of the best ways to assess the power of photographs is to see some examples. Here are links to web sites that feature award-winning and memorable images that have made an impact on people’s lives. As you take time to view them, think about your own reactions to what you are seeing. How do they communicate to you? Please note that some of these photographs may be disturbing.
Agence France Press
The English version of the Agency France Press features news photographs from around the world.
American Photography: A Century of Images
The site features a chapter on “photography and war” that is worth a visit by those interested trauma and photography. The site also is interactive and allows visitors to work with photographs.
Associated Press Managing Editors
Assess a gallery of the photographs showcased by editors of APME. Featured photos include Thomas E. Franklins photograph of firefighters raising an American flag on September 11.
The Associated Press Photos of the Century
This site features photographs from 1899 through the 1990s, including the first picture to win a Pulitzer for photography Milton “Pete” Brooks’ “The Picket Line” published in The Detroit News.
The website for this celebrated photo agency features the work of agency photographers including founder Robert Capa, born Andre Friedman, famous for his photographs of the Spanish Civil War; Marilyn Silverstone, celebrated for her shots of India; and Philip Jones Griffiths who photographed the Vietnam War and later turned his work into the book Vietnam, Inc.
Masters of Photography
See examples of crime photography taken by celebrated photographer Arthur Fellig also known as Weegee. The Encyclopedia of Photography (1984) entry on Weegee notes “Although Weegee photographed a wide panorama of urban life, the documentation of violent crimes, disasters, and their survivors and onlookers was Weegee's specialty.”
National Association of Black Journalists
Titled “Diary from the Desert” this page is featured on the NABJ site. The project is described on the site as follows: “Award-winning Miami Herald photographer Carl Juste is returning from nearly four months in Afghanistan and Pakistan, covering the war there. Here are excerpts from a daily diary, documenting his days and nights there.”
In this multimedia presentation, Hear photographers discuss their Pulitzer Prize-winning work as the photos materialize on your computer monitor. Highlights include photographer Joe Rosenthal discussing his photo of six U.S. servicemen raising the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima, Eddie Adams talking about his shot of a Viet Cong execution, and Susan Walsh’s photograph of the President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The Newseum home page also includes links to the feature “Photojournalist of the Month.”
Poytner Institute series “Behind the Lens”
Subtitled “Photographers Cope with Captured Images, ” this link is to part one of the multi-part series on the challenges of covering the September 11 tragedy as a photojournalist.
Pulitzer Prize Photos
Review the photographs that have won the top prize in journalism.
III. Effects of Trauma Exposure
Although photojournalists photograph a wide range of subject matter, sooner or later they will have to photograph something that they and their readers find deeply disturbing. It could be a serious car crash, a school shooting, a violent domestic dispute, a murder victim, a suicide, a hostage crisis, a police standoff, a terrorist attack or any number of other situations. For photojournalists working overseas, military conflict and war carnage, famine, disease and other subjects often end up on the assignment rolls.
Whatever the traumatic event happens to be, a photojournalist will likely have to spend considerable time and energy trying to get just the right shots to help tell the story of what happened. He or she may need to repeatedly shoot shocked or grieving victims and family members, emergency personnel in the line of duty, horror-stricken by-standers — and others — from various angles and perspectives. In a major catastrophe, such as a plane crash or a terrorist act, they may spend long hours, day after day, photographing physical and emotional pain.
Photojournalists also put their lives on the line in the pursuit of newsgathering. On September 15, 2001, the body of William Biggart, a freelance news photographer, was discovered in the rubble of the World Trade Center along with several bodies of firefighters. He had taken his camera to the scene of the World Trade Center attacks as soon as he heard about what happened.
Former Dart Center Fellow David Handschuh, a photographer for the New York Daily News, was seriously injured and traumatized on September 11 when he went to photograph the World Trade Center before its collapse. Former president of the National Press Photographers Association, Handschuh narrowly escaped death when he was thrown from his spot beneath the World Trade Center and covered in debris. Rescue workers came to his aid right in the nick of time. Before his brush with death, however, he took a horrifying photograph of the explosion above him. Click here to see the photograph. Click here to read his story.
These are only two stories about two photojournalists covering the same story. One survived, one did not. The Committee to Protect Journalists can tell dozens of other stories about journalists and photojournalists who gave their lives in the line of duty.
Research has shown that journalists and photojournalists who cover traumatic events can experience stress effects at the emotional, cognitive, physical and interpersonal levels. In an exploratory study of journalists at six different newspapers in Washington State and Michigan, Simpson and Boggs found that “the longer a person had worked as a reporter or a photographer, the more likely he or she was to report symptoms of trauma effects. We also found that journalists who covered auto crashes at the scene were more likely to be aware of intrusive images and memories.” (See Simpson and Boggs, 1999, for the full study. Full citation is available in the “Additional Resources” part of this lesson plan.)
It is normal for anyone, including photojournalists, to experience a range of responses to the trauma that they witness. At the emotional level, they may experience shock, terror, irritability, blame, anger, guilt, grief or sadness, emotional numbing, helplessness, loss of pleasure derived from familiar activities, difficulty feeling happy, difficulty feeling loved.
At the cognitive level, they may experience impaired concentration, impaired decision-making ability, memory impairment, disbelief, confusion, nightmares, decreased self-esteem, decreased self-efficacy, self-blame, intrusive thoughts, memories, dissociation (e.g., tunnel vision, dreamlike or "spacey" feeling).
At the physical level, they may experience fatigue, exhaustion, insomnia, cardiovascular strain, startle response, hyperarousal, increased physical pain, reduced immune response, headaches, gastrointestinal upset, decreased appetite, decreased libido, vulnerability to illness.
And at the interpersonal level, they may experience increased relational conflict, social withdrawal, reduced relational intimacy, alienation, impaired work performance, impaired school performance, decreased satisfaction, distrust, externalization of blame, externalization of vulnerability, feeling abandoned, rejected, overprotectiveness.
(For a comprehensive treatment of journalism and trauma in general, please refer to Module 1 of the Dart Center’s online curriculum. A detailed discussion of stress effects is available in Part 2 of Module 1.)
Photojournalists bear witness to some of life’s most painful scenes. It is their job to help tell the story of what happened and, in the process, let the rest of the world see a part of what they saw.
In the documentary called, “Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs,” mentioned in the introduction of this module, one photographer’s story speaks volumes. Thomas Kelly, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, talks about the photograph that won him the prestigious award. A man in Kelly’s hometown of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, had taken his pregnant wife and two young daughters hostage in their home. When the first policeman arrived on the scene, an elderly woman lay badly bleeding on the front lawn from lacerations. There were rumors that a man was still inside the house brandishing either a knife or a gun.
Kelly was taking photographs for the Pottstown Mercury newspaper. At one point, a five-year-old girl, suffering serious knife wounds on her face, comes out of the house. Despite her injuries, she manages to tell the first person she comes into contact with not to hurt her father.
“What I saw gives me chills till this day,” Kelly recalls. “For over a year, I couldn’t talk about this. It was too horrible.”
In fact, as he is looking through photos of the event that had occurred some two decades earlier, Kelly says he has only taken out those photos two or three times since that traumatic day. Although he continued to live in Pottstown after the tragedy, in which the man ended up letting his other daughter go but killing his pregnant wife, Kelly had not visited the crime scene until asked to do so by the documentary filmmaker.
“For days and months and even now,” Kelly says, “I still feel the moment that I was down there at that scene. I’ve thought about it at night. It’s affected me a great deal. It’s something that won’t go away. It’ll affect me forever.”
He says he has mixed feelings about winning the Pulitzer Prize for the photo he took of the suspect as he was running toward Kelly in the front yard, a photo which Kelly says he did not consciously remember taking at first. He appreciated the recognition of his work by the Pulitzer selection committee, but he would have preferred the subject matter to be something else.
Kelly’s honesty in sharing his feelings and experiences over the years is helpful to those who try to understand how covering traumatic events may affect a photojournalist. While their particular stories may differ, many photojournalists who have been in the business for a while can share similar feelings and experiences about the traumatic events they’ve had to photograph. But you don’t even have to be in the business very long before witnessing trauma. Even photojournalist interns, in college or fresh out of college, have reported being sent on assignments to photograph serious car crashes and other disturbing scenes with nary a warning or word of advice from their editor.
When someone is exposed to a traumatic stressor, he or she may experience symptoms common to sufferers of a stress disorder: recurring intrusive recollections; avoidance and numbing symptoms; increased arousal; significant distress or impairment of function. Depending on the persistence and intensity of these symptoms, a mental disorder — such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — may be indicated.
Not everyone who is exposed to a traumatic stressor will develop PTSD. Some people may be more susceptible to PTSD than others for a wide variety of reasons. It is certainly nothing to be ashamed about and does not indicate a weakness in character or ability.
Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the study of PTSD, has written that “those with PTSD preserve the impact of cruelty for the rest of us. I tell patients that there is nothing abnormal about those who suffer. It is a normal reaction to abnormal events” (1996, 22).
Dr. Matthew Friedman, director of the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (NCPTSD) believes that many journalists have a high risk of developing PTSD. In the NCP Clinical Quarterly (1996) he writes: “Frequent exposure to war, rape, murder, violent crime, natural disasters, and the like, place [journalists] in a category along with the military, police, and emergency medical personnel who have high rates of exposure to traumatic events.”
For most photojournalists, more commonly occurring news events like car accidents, fires and murders often produce trauma responses. A recent study of 800 photojournalists conducted by clinical psychologist and Dart Center executive committee member Dr. Elana Newman, Dart Center execitove director Prof. Roger Simpson and the National Press Photographers Association found that “such assignments are commonplace.” Newman told participants at a National Press Photographers Association annual meeting, “Witnessing death and injury takes its toll, a toll that increases with exposure.” She said that despite photojournalists exposure to traumatic events, they appear to be a resilient group. She said, however, that a minority of respondents responding to the survey may be suffering from PTSD, and a larger minority may be suffering from other trauma related disorders such as depression and substance abuse.
(See Photojournalists Most Affected by War, a Dart Center news headline, for a summary of the study’s findings.)
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma recognizes that photographing trauma comes with the territory of being a photojournalist. Its goal is to help photojournalists better understand traumatic stress and recognize its symptoms in case they or those they know may need help. News organizations should also consider ways of educating their journalists and photojournalists about the “science of trauma.” Exploring the Dart Center web site is a good way of getting started. Other news organizations have sponsored in-house training sessions, provided release time for their journalists to attend seminars on traumatic stress, and distributed literature on the subject to their new and existing employees.
IV. Traumatic Stress and the News Audience
The field of mass communication study is largely build upon “effects research,” the study of how media content (e.g., movies, newspaper articles, propaganda, television programs, etc.) affects some segment of the population. This research goes back about three-quarters of a century and has yielded a wide range of useful findings. The most important caveat that has emerged over the decades is that not everyone is affected in the same way by the same “message” at the same time. In other words, there is no “magic bullet” effect.
However, it is not uncommon for people who have experienced emotional trauma to respond in common ways. They might typically respond with fear and anxiety, hypersensitivity, grief, depression, avoidance behavior and so forth. For some people, these responses may last for weeks, even several months, as they gradually decrease in severity. For others, however, their responses may not go away, and they will suffer from a more prolonged stress disorder that can be cognitively, emotionally, physically and interpersonally disruptive. A trained mental health expert would have the capacity to diagnose a cause for this syndrome.
Preliminary and ongoing scientific research clearly shows that visual images do affect brain activity in demonstrable and measurable ways. Using a process called positron emission tomography (PET), scientists are able to observe brain activity under various conditions such as response to a specific stimulus. (PET is used with other organs as well and is primarily a medical diagnostic tool.) This neurological research has shown, among other things, that certain parts of the brain significantly respond to visual stimuli such as “film-generated emotion” (Reiman et al., 1997). Through the PET technology, scientist can actually “see” the brain’s activity change when emotions are triggered by a visual input. Other research has supported this visual-emotion-brain activity connection (e.g., Paradiso et al., 1997).
There isn’t a large amount of research on how traumatic images affect news consumers in particular, but mental health experts who specialize in trauma know that news reports about a traumatic event can have an impact on the psychological life of an individual not only immediately after the event but for years down the road. Those who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, are particularly susceptible to having their symptoms triggered by reminders of their traumatic event, especially during anniversaries of the event or when perpetrators come up for trial. These dates usually signal a recurrence of media coverage and can be difficult for victims or survivors in the process of recovery.
Photographs of the terrorist attacks in New York City are sure to be shown many times in the future as the news media observe September 11 anniversaries or refer to the attacks for other reasons. These photos are likely to affect a large number of people who were profoundly traumatized by the actual event and are reminded of it every time they see images of that tragedy. (Various studies have estimated that hundreds of thousands of New York residents have suffered from PTSD after the attacks.) Because the attacks continue to be so newsworthy, it is inevitable that reminders of the event will be part of the news menu for a long time. Mental health specialists strongly recommend that people who feel they are suffering from PTSD seek professional help. The news media, too, should be careful not to sensationalize their coverage or re-victimize those who have already suffered enough.
One recent case where a community expressed anger toward the news media for what it perceived to be invasive and sometimes insensitive news coverage was in Columbine, Colorado, where on the morning of April 20, 1999, two students opened fire on their classmates, leaving 12 students and a teacher dead. (The gunmen took their own lives.) Local and national news media descended on this community and began to report the tragedy, creating conflicts with many members of the community who preferred to grieve in private away from the cameras and the reporters.
A documentary called, “Covering Columbine,” by Meg Moritz of the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, shows students, journalists and community members talking about the media coverage surrounding the worst school shooting in U.S. history. A description of the video (which can be obtained for classroom use from the Dart Center) appears on the Dart Center web site:
“Newspaper and television reporters and editors discuss such issues as using graphic images of violence in their stories, notification of family members when fatally injured children were shown, and news coverage of subsequent traumas occurring in the Columbine community.”
While there are still considerable problems that emerge between the media and community when the news media converge on a tragedy or disaster zone, it is reassuring that more self-reflection also seems to be occurring so that sensitivity and professionalism might help guide future newsgathering practices. It would be naïve to expect that tabloid-style news coverage of tragedy and disasters will disappear overnight — if ever — but more and more individual journalists and news organizations are having discussions about the negative and positive effects that their news coverage has had on the community and on themselves.
Simpson and Coté have included a chapter called, “Pictures and Sounds of Trauma,” in their book, Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims and Trauma (2000). It is an important supplement to this online module. A profile of award-winning photographer Lynne Dobson, then with the Austin American-Statesman, follows the chapter.
Written by Migael Scherer, the profile describes a photojournalist with both skill and sensitivity. Scherer writes:
“Dobson is well aware of her potential to revictimize people in the course of crime coverage, even as she feels the competitive pull of pack journalism. ‘I try to keep my head on straight, to remember that the people involved have a life beyond the event.’ A long lens, unobtrusive angles, and putting her camera aside to connect with survivors helps, as does focusing on what readers will think and feel. ‘Readers care about people,’ she says. Because Dobson is aware that readers will be interested later, she always keeps an eye out for follow-up ideas” (p. 147).
Reports about international crises — war, famine, disease, brutality and other major conflicts abroad — can have mixed effects “at home.” Journalist, photographer and scholar Susan Moeller has written extensively about the subject of “compassion fatigue” (and its cousin, “donor fatigue”), a phenomenon in which news stories about particularly egregious events abroad elicit less compassion from readers and viewers because they do not perceive that there is anything that can be done about the situation, and they find it difficult to understand the complexity of factors that result in unspeakable crimes against humanity. As such, they “tune out.”
“We fall into compassion fatigue,” Moeller writes in the Summer 2001 issue of Media Studies Journal, “after seeing graphic images and hearing graphic tales that mean little to us beyond the fact that ‘people are being hurt’” (p. 110).
Moeller cites the horrific case of Rwanda, in which not only genocide but brutal mutilations occurred, often against children, who survived. The public response to the genocide in Rwanda was reticent, not because people did not feel discomfort — some complained about the graphic images in newspapers and magazines — but because they felt helpless and thus not compelled to respond in a concerted manner. Certainly there were calls to relief organizations, but not in the volume one might expect given the severity of the situation.
In contrast, when cholera broke out in Rwandan refugee camps and were reported by the international news media, calls to relief agencies poured in. This was something that people felt they could meaningfully contribute to; their dollars could buy real relief for suffering people, if only a blanket or rations.
What motivates people to care, Moeller suggests, is much more complicated than most people realize. Pity alone is not enough. Those who feel they are being manipulated by the news media may care less than more about suffering people. Moreover, she adds, “You have to know a subject well before you can care about it, whether “it” is golf or a war in Sierra Leone. If you get skewed information, not enough information, or information that is too offensive, you are unlikely to care about the topic” (2001, p. 111).
The deteriorating state of international news coverage does not help improve compassion fatigue. When news media move from one international crisis to another, aiming for the most graphic and extreme story angles, the audience may watch but “disconnect.” The opposite of compassion fatigue — civic engagement — “occurs when members of the public find that their own interests are in synch with the community’s needs and standards” (p. 111).
Moeller’s studies of international news coverage, which heavily incorporate analysis of photojournalism’s role in society and history, can be found in two extensively researched books, Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat and Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death. (See Part 6 for full citations.)
The bottom line is that images can affect cognition and emotions in powerful ways, and this includes images of events not directly experienced but transmitted via the news media. Photojournalists often become the eyes for people who cannot themselves be first-hand witnesses to traumatic events. They help show us the who, what, when, where and why. In providing this important public service, they may inadvertently or carelessly traumatize their subjects, especially in the frenzied pace of a disastrous situation. But photojournalists have also used their special skills to show what humanity looks like in the midst of tragedy, and many have done this in humanely and with respect for their subjects and their readers. News organizations can also be humane and respectful when making important decisions about what images they publish, how often, and why. Many already have policies in place that govern their photojournalistic practices. Awareness of the psychological impact of images helps sustain this professional consciousness.
V. Tips for Photojournalists
In the introduction to his book Truth Needs No Ally: Inside Photojournalism, writer and photographer Howard Chapnick describes photojournalism as both profession and calling. The profession can be a lonely one that is marked by “incredible pressures to perform and deliver” and its practitioners need “boundless energy, unflagging enthusiasm, a spirit of adventure, the ability to survive under difficult conditions, and the courage to confront danger” (1994, p. 8).
Photojournalists are professionals who adhere to ethical standards that set them apart from the hobbyist taking snap shots while on vacation. National, regional, and news organization-specific guidelines offer photojournalists help in meeting the demands of their job and balancing the challenges from both sides of the lens.
For example, the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists advises “be sensitive in seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief” and “recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort.”
And the White House News Photographers Association tells members to “always be mindful of our duty to the common good of society [and] sensitive to matters of privacy and the grief of others.”
The Dallas Morning News states plainly in its newsroom guidelines with regard to photographs “follow good taste and good sense.”
Perhaps the National Press Photographers Association offers among the better overall recommendations for the profession. The group’s Code of Ethics includes the following, “Photojournalism affords an opportunity to serve the public that is equaled by few other vocations and all members of the profession should strive by example and influence to maintain high standards of ethical conduct free of mercenary considerations of any kind.”
In Coté and Simpson’s book, Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims of Trauma, the authors put together a list of specific guidelines culled from recommendations put out by a variety of professional organizations. These apply to both print and video photographers. They include:
· Do not knowingly allow a live broadcast of a killing, whether homicide or suicide, especially in close-up and showing wounds and blood.
· Build in a delay of several seconds during live transmissions to allow a decision on whether to show something.
· Insist that photographers and photo and graphics editors join other editors or news directors in deciding what photos to publish or tapes to air.
· Be sure relatives have been notified before you announce or show the identity of a person who has been killed [whenever possible].
· Do not interrupt children’s programming to show deaths.
· For television news reports, give viewers enough advance warning of what you are about to show so that someone can leave the room, remove children, or change channels.
· Remember that children may be able to see a photo in a newspaper left lying around or when adults have let the television on.
· For newspapers, think about the relative effects of photos published on the front page and inside pages. Something that might be too graphic for someone (especially a child) glancing at a front page could be less troublesome inside.
· No matter what photos or footage you decide to use, tell the whole story – before, during and after – of what happened to the human being involved, not just the death.
· If you decide to show a tape of some part of a suicide or other death, do it once – say, on the first regular evening news – but do not use file tape in subsequent telecasts.
· If you have considered all these factors and still cannot decide what to do, try what the Christian Science Monitor’s Buffy Chindler calls the “Wheaties Test”: Would it be suitable for the breakfast table?
· As soon as deadline pressures ease, discuss the decision, how it affected survivors and the public, and whether you should have handled anything differently. The more discussion there is of these experiences, the more likely you are to avoid thoughtless miscues in the future.
· Finally, do not assume that these, or any other guidelines or policies, will save you from agonizing over what to show and not show. They will not and perhaps should not.
(From Coté and Simpson, 2000, pp. 138-139)
These, of course, are not hard-and-fast rules that apply to every use of a visual image. There may be exceptions, depending on the particular circumstances of the news event. The experience, professional skills and insight of media professionals will also need to come into play. These guidelines are meant to help advance an organization’s dialogue — or an individual’s self-reflection — about the ethical parameters of photographing traumatic events.
For more information on what is expected of contemporary photojournalists from various professional organizations, visit the following web sites.