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How much is too much when covering tragedy?

Newspapers, TV use different standards in picking tsumani images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Editors at The New York Times and Los Angeles Times showed similar judgment one day last week in running large, front-page pictures of tsunami victims. Faces of dead babies in makeshift morgues were clearly visible.

They were the type of images you were hard-pressed to see during hours of television coverage.

In a cataclysm notable for its staggering loss of life, U.S. television news was reluctant to convey that fact graphically.

The early days of coverage were dominated by video, much of it taken by amateurs, depicting the awesome spectacle of onrushing water. When professional TV crews arrived, the cameras focused mostly on the physical destruction — buildings splintered, cars and boats flung along city streets.

When bodies were seen, they were mostly from a distance and usually covered up. From television’s perspective, they didn’t have a face.

“What you want to do is show the horrific nature of what happened but do it in a way that you don’t cause disgust among the viewers, particularly during the dinner hour,” said Chuck Lustig, who coordinated ABC News’ coverage on “World News Tonight” and other broadcasts.

Walking a fine line
With such a decision, journalists walk a fine line between showing sensitivity and giving short shrift to the enormous human cost and scope of the event.

“It anesthetizes the emotion,” said Michele McNally, director of photography at The New York Times.

McNally was torn between two pictures she wanted to offer for the front page last Tuesday. Both were from the same hospital in India; one showed more bodies but faces were not visible. The other showed fewer bodies, but the children’s features were evident, and a mother was clutching her head in agony for her loss.

McNally knew from the gasps of other editors that the second picture told a more dramatic story.

The picture took up much of the top half of the page, except for a banner headline and one column of copy. The Los Angeles Times layout was identical; the picture showed dozens of bodies in an Indonesian morgue. An ashen baby, its eyes closed in death, was in the forefront.

Geneva Overholser, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri and former editor of the Des Moines Register, said she’s noticed a trend toward more revealing newspaper photos. When she was an editor, there was a strong sense that recognizable bodies weren’t shown, particularly when the tragedy was close to home.

She doesn’t know if those old rules should apply anymore. “I want to see what is happening,” she said.

“My own instinct is almost overwhelmingly that we in the news media ought to be showing the truth to people and if we don’t, we are in danger of not giving them the information that they need,” Overholser said.

The New York Times in particular has made a habit recently of showing images that television has shied away from: a person falling to his death from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001; the charred remains of Americans hanging from a bridge in Iraq.

McNally said she was unaware of any complaints from readers about the tsunami front page.

MSNBC.com also has not shied away from running more graphic photos of the aftermath of the tsunami on its stories and in slide shows, but generally not on cover photos, which are viewed with no warning to readers. In the site's weekly feature, The Week in Pictures, a disclaimer is run before particularly graphic images, alerting the reader to the nature of the photo.

“We try to pick photos that concentrate on the truth of the event. That requires us showing some graphic photos because, in this case, it’s a graphic situation,” said Angela Clark, deputy editor in charge of MSNBC.com's multimedia team. “As for disclaimers, we try to make sure we’re aware of context. If we link to a photo gallery of scenes from the tsunami, then we will show horrific photos. If it’s a lighter grouping of photos from the week, we’ll offer a graphic disclaimer before we show the photo.”

Different standard for different medium
Television executives say their medium is different. Parents can better shield their children from gruesome images in a newspaper than they can when a television picture shows up quickly and unexpectedly, said Michael Bass, executive producer of “The Early Show” on CBS.

“We never forget that we are a guest in people’s homes,” said Bill Wheatley, NBC News vice president. “Any organization would be foolish to give people a steady diet of material that would be so offensive that they couldn’t watch.”

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how the victims of disasters are shown at NBC News. Producers decide on a case-by-case basis whether an image is right for their shows, he said. MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.

Bass said viewers can tell what’s going on without the more heart-stopping images.

“I don’t think anybody could be watching our show or any of the other morning shows and not understand the staggering loss of life,” he said.

Some TV anchors last week, like Anderson Cooper on CNN and Elizabeth Vargas on ABC, warned viewers before showing images of the dead that the video could be disturbing.

Both television and newspapers depend upon consumers. But it’s easier for a disgusted viewer to click away to another channel — something Nielsen Media Research would quickly notice — than for a newspaper reader to cancel a subscription.

TV also depends on advertiser support, and companies might not want to plug their products right after unsavory pictures.