Graphic Images in the News: The Boston Marathon Bombing Lesson

April 15, 2013 is a day many of us will never forget, the day of the Boston Marathon Bombings. While many were there to experience the terror most of us can only identify with this terror attack by the images and coverage on our news and social media outlets. I remember typing the hashtags #BostonStrong and #BostonMarathon into my Instagram account on the day of the Boston Marathon. Within an instant thousands of images flooded in. Some of these images were showing respect but some of the images were downright graphic. I am not one for blood and the amount of images showing injuries was disturbing. I guess I can only blame myself since I am the one who searched these hashtags on social media, but part of me believes there should be some sort of mediation when tragedies happen and people take to social media. Boston_Marathon_bombing_first_bomb_site_54_minute_before_explosion

People aren’t going to social media just to post content anymore; they’re online to gain visibility. Throughout the coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombing news networks like CNN asked viewers to tweet/share images at the scene using a specific hashtag. I remember going to and viewing these images, again more filled with serious injuries. I completely understand, this is a real world terror attack with serious implications but organizations must remember their audience and those involved when reporting on tragedies.  This is sensitive material that should be treated with care.

One graphic image that went viral showed a man being pushed on a wheelchair missing some of his leg. You can see the man’s face. You can almost feel his pain. You can sense the urgency and terror that occurred at the finishline on that day. You can understand the seriousness of the event. It gave me goose bumps the first time I saw the picture. This is perhaps the reason why many news organizations chose to use the picture during their coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombing. While the image evokes so many emotions is it ethically right to broadcast it across major news networks?

When this question was posed to me I immediately thought “no.” There is doctor/patient confidentiality and while this happened in a public space this man’s health is private. There is no reason to show the state of his health on national television.

The second thought that popped into my head was “what about the audience.” Coverage of the tragedy wasn’t just occurring during the primetime hours when children are usually asleep, it was 24/7 and everyone was glued to the television. I’m sure minors saw images and heard things that were not appropriate during this coverage. News outlets must remember their ethics in these situations and report what is good for the general public, including minors.

There were many mistakes that occurred in the news world during the Boston Marathon coverage. From misinformation to graphic images, we can learn from. I truly believe images graphic in nature should not used in television. It is not just for the victim or the audience. I hope in the future the FCC will enforce guidelines that are stricter on graphic images and victim’s privacy.


10 thoughts on “Graphic Images in the News: The Boston Marathon Bombing Lesson

  1. Hi Alexis, you did a really nice job of repainting the vivid picture of that day. In fact, I think I remember that picture of the main the wheelchair. I didn’t go searching for it though. During breaking news stories I actually try to stay away from social media because I just can’t stomach it all. It feels like so much getting through at you at once. Instead I go to the national nightly news because they’ve had more time to fact check, and that’s where I would have seen this picture. And I agree with you it was too graphic to use. And ethically, did the person who took the picture receive his permission? I’m guessing in the moment that didn’t happen. How would that feel to the people who know and care for that person? I actually remember for a long time the media didn’t share photos of war because it was seemed unethical for the family and friends of soldiers, and I’d like it if the media would move back in that direction and show a little restraint.

    • Hi Blythe,

      I think your game plan when it comes to break news is a good one. Maybe in the future I will do the same. I had never thought about relying on the nightly news so much when events like the Boston Marathon happen. They really do have more time to process the info. Thanks for your comment!

  2. You raise a good point concerning news networks. It’s not just about them posting graphic photos or sharing photos others have posted, many actually encourage people to “share” their experiences with specific hashtags. I think this can raise some ethical concerns as well. Obviously, organic hashtags like #BostonStrong develop, but creating your own seems to be somewhat promotional and self-serving. Are news organizations looking to see how many photos/posts they can gather, become a trending hashtag, or really generate quality content? The latter is probably not the case most often. Beyond that, how can these news organizations filter the content? They can’t. So, if inappropriate or even irrelevant content pops up, there’s not much they can do about it. It seems like a bad idea on all fronts. News agencies need to stick with reporting the facts and informing their audience, instead of generating social media trends or fads. During tragedies or emergency situations, leave social media for the facts rather than promotional ideas.

    • Hi Laura,

      Great comment. I completely agree. I think it would be beneficial for news companies to just report the news…that’s it. There is no need to be promotional. I hope news outlets can learn from the Boston Marathon and be more ethical in their reporting.

  3. You said “I truly believe images graphic in nature should not used in television. It is not just for the victim or the audience. I hope in the future the FTC [sic] will enforce guidelines that are stricter on graphic images and victim’s privacy.”

    I hope the FCC doesn’t do this.

    What happened in Boston was terrible – no argument there. But what would be terrible as well if images showing the truth were suppressed. This suppression would allow the FCC to determine what news agencies could or couldn’t show. This is flirting with freedom of the press.

    Whether or not you or other dislike the images shown, having government interfere with news agencies is definitely not something you or others would want. Allowing this might open the door, so to speak, to other censorships.

    I think it’s a very slippery slope if not properly monitored. I’m not some guy worried that the government is out to get me, but I don’t like the idea of having the FCC dictate what is acceptable when it comes to news coverage.

    • Hi Dave,

      First off, thanks for catching my typo (I updated my post)…obviously it’s the FCC not the FTC 😉

      I can see your point about freedom of the press but you also have to remember your audience. I remember on one of the anniversaries of 9/11 a major news station (I think it was NBC) shared their on-the-field reporting that contained some graphic images (i.e. serious injuries and people jumping out of buildings). Yes they aired this, but they did so at an appropriate time when most minors are in bed. I think we can find a happy medium. If news organizations want to use graphic images save it for the primetime/late night viewers. Sound like a fair trade?

  4. Hey Alexis,

    You offer some great insight into the day. Like you, I’m not one for blood or injuries. Even thinking about blood makes me a little woozy! There were a lot of graphic images shared after the Boston bombings, and a lot of them made me cringe. That being said, I couldn’t stop looking at photos from the day. It was kind of like the whole car accident situation where everyone slows down to look, and even if you don’t want to look, you can’t look away.

    You brought up a really interesting point about doctor/patient confidentiality. HIPAA laws have restricted the sharing of medical information, but there’s really not the same type of precedence with the media sharing information. It will be interesting to see if some type of guidelines evolve in the future.

    That being said, I don’t know that we can really blame the media either. The photographer was doing his job by capturing the events. Graphic things happened that day and the images helped people understand what happened. In this case, the power is in our hands. Although the media decides what pictures they share, social media users are the ones who determine what goes viral. Without putting tight restrictions controlling what people can and can’t share on social media, I don’t know that graphic images are going anywhere anytime soon.

    • Hi Lauren,

      You make some great points about the media and social media. I agree with you…social media users determine what goes viral but there has to be some sort of happy medium. Maybe just share the image on social media and not on television? This is a very hard situation to monitor. Thanks for your input!

  5. Hi Alexis –

    I remember searching those hashtags and having a similar reaction – so many of the images that were posted from civilians and news organizations that day were unbearable to look at. Yet, we searched those hashtags anyways, knowing full and well what we were about to view. So yeah, I suppose it is our own faults for looking into the situation in the manner that we did. Even though we did this to ourselves, I agree that news outlets should be more careful when posting information about these types of events. The people in the photos of victims most likely never had the chance to contact their family members prior to their photos being posted. I couldn’t imagine finding out that a loved one was seriously injured in an attack through a graphic photo on social media or a news website.

    • Hi Lacee,

      Graphic images are hard to stomach for me too, especially when it involves such a serious instance like the Boston Marathon Bombings. Social media is both a blessing and a curse when these kind of events happen. In the future I hope to see more ethical decisions made when it comes to reporting on breaking news on social media (i.e. maybe people will practice better behavior in the current situation in the Middle East?).

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