How should journalists handle graphic citizen media?

Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo.

Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” has a fascinating conversation this week with NPR’s Andy Carvin and Sky News’ Neal Mann about whether they felt comfortable tweeting a horrifically graphic video of a Syrian boy whose lower face was blown off in the city of Homs, which is under attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Mann’s answer: No. Carvin’s: Yes, with appropriate warnings.

I want to play the segment for my Reinventing the News students tomorrow. I thought it was a great example of the dilemmas faced by professional journalists whose duties now include curating citizen media. And I considered whether to show them the video. It’s not hard to find, though I won’t link to it. I’ve bookmarked it, and I’ll think about it a bit more. But right now I can’t imagine subjecting a captive audience of 15 students to such a disturbing video.

Frankly, even though Carvin says he gave his Twitter followers plenty of warning, I think I’m with Mann. Because what, really, is the larger meaning of the video? Carvin tells Garfield:

I shared the video because I actually thought it would snap people out of their complacency, because we’ve seen so many videos of people protesting, so many videos of people just laying there in hospitals. But there was something about this image, about being able to look this boy in the eye and see the numbness; his soul was already beginning to disappear at that point. It seemed to me emblematic of what was happening in Homs, and I wanted to give people that opportunity to watch it, if they chose.

Yet, driving home this evening, I heard a report about an investigation into the deaths of eight children killed in Afghanistan by a NATO air strike gone awry. Carvin wants us to know about the brutality of the Syrian government. Well, OK, but what about ours? Might a citizen journalist in Kapisa province have shot footage of a boy fatally injured by American-backed forces just as horrific as the one Carvin tweeted?

Not to stack the deck. I have enormous respect for Carvin, and his action definitely accomplished some good. As he tells it, because of his tweet, an emergency medical team mobilized in Lebanon, ready to help the injured boy. Unfortunately, he died before he could be spirited out of the country.

What the Assad regime is doing in Syria is absolutely savage. But the video doesn’t tell us much more than the universal reality that war is hell.

Photo (cc) by Maggie Osama and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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5 thoughts on “How should journalists handle graphic citizen media?

  1. Paul Bass

    “Carvin wants us to know about the brutality of the Syrian government. Well, OK, but what about ours?” Great point. So how do we tell people about ours?

    “the video doesn’t tell us much more than the universal reality that war is hell.” I wonder whether on the one hand there needs to be a continual effort to show that war is hell — while on the other hand if you show it graphically too often people become numb.

  2. Jeff Schiffman

    Dan, I agree with Carvin. If these videos are available, no matter where the acts of brutality emanated from, show them. Show them all. It seems hardly a question of whether these graphic scenes might appear too often, but rather that they do not appear at all. I believe we need to stop romanticizing and sanitizing the effects of war, and surely college level journalism students in particular need to be exposed to that reality when possible, In addition, and hovering the the background: I wonder where you stood about the Phoenix’s decision to show the video of the decapitation of Daniel Pearl? Would you show your students that?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Jeff: Here is what I wrote for Nieman Reports about the Phoenix’s decision. I had actually left the Phoenix when it happened, although I was continuing to freelance. Later, we decided to convert it to a leave of absence, and I returned in the spring of 2003. But when I wrote this, I honestly had no idea I would be back.

      And no, I wouldn’t show it to my students. I have no problem with what Andy Carvin did. But I think that in viewing something that horrific, people should always have a choice. Students sitting in class don’t have much of a choice.

  3. L.K. Collins

    What would be your instructive purpose in showing it to your journalism class?

    If it is to show them that war is a bloody and unconscionable horror, it would seem to me that you would be politicizing an academic class for the purposes of politics over education.

    If, however, it is to show them that journalists have choices to make when they observe horrific scenes, then, I think, it could lead to very wide-ranging, educational, and informative discussions about the profession and about the roles that they, as future journalists, may have to play.

    I would show it for the latter reason were I to be leading the course. Better the student learn now about what he might see and be aware.

    A journalist often does not have the choice to turn his head and ignore the offensiveness of his scene when reporting on matters where violence and bloodshed are part of the view.

  4. L.K. Collins

    Perhaps, Dan, I am a little less affected by the realities of life than you or your poor, unprotected students.

    I think your choice is a mistake, and I think it is a mistake because you elect to avoid a fine opportunity to present the exigencies that boots-on-the ground journalists see, be they foreign war correspondents or beat reporters assigned to the latest local six-alarm apartment house fire.

    Not every journalist is destined to sit forever, perfectly coiffed, behind the anchor desk of WXYZ-TV in Tinsleburg, USA, as much as they might wish their career path to be such.

    If they are in college and considered adults, then why should you be shielding them from the adult world?

    I would certainly warn in advance, but I’m sure the teaching moment would me more to the student’s benefit than the politically correct avoidance of the controversy that you are showing.

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