Four days after the bomb blasts that killed more than 70 people in Kampala on July 11, I received a call from a Ugandan friend attending an international conference in the lakeside town of Entebbe.
“What are you people teaching your journalists?” she asked. “Foreign delegates here are in shock about the pictures they have seen in the newspapers and on television.”
After a long exchange, we agreed that some media houses had gone overboard. But I also added that it was a complex ethical dilemma.
On July 12, readers awoke to shocking images of the carnage of the previous night. That night I had been at Shell Sports Club, which shares a fence with Kyadondo Rugby Club, and I had seen scores of people, some injured, running away from the scene of the blasts. But nothing had prepared me for what I saw the following morning. The leading newspapers, The New Vision, Daily Monitor, and Bukedde all had graphic pictures of dead bodies from the bomb attack scenes at Kyadondo Rugby Club and the Ethiopian Village Restaurant in Kabalagala on their front pages. The three newspapers also carried more pictures of death on the inside pages, the most memorable being of the many victims who lay motionless in their chairs.
Red Pepper, the country’s leading tabloid, did not carry the story, because the editors had probably taken the paper to bed much earlier. It would obviously have carried even more shocking photos, as the tabloid did in the days that followed.
Said Fred Mubiru of Kampala, who lost a younger brother in the Kyadondo explosions: “Those pictures were traumatising, especially for the families of the victims and children.”
He added: “In other countries they don’t show as many pictures of dead people.”
Yet, the debate over the use of graphic images of death in the media is universal. We heard it in Kenya during the post-election violence in 2008 in which more than 1,000 people were killed; in South Africa during the xenophobic violence of 2008; in the United States during the coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and more recently the Haiti earthquake.
The arguments against the use of explicit pictures of accidents, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and wars usually are that it is an exploitative and sensationalistic practice that offends the “dignity of the victims” and the “sensibilities of audiences” as well as traumatising relatives and children.
The arguments for the use of shocking graphic images usually are that audiences can’t understand the carnage and horrors of natural disasters, war, and terrorism without the visuals. To withhold shocking pictures in some circumstances, it is argued, would be to sanitise ugly realities that people need to see. It is also argued that pictures provide a vicarious experience that words alone cannot capture—or at least not as easily. To use, the journalism cliché, a picture tells a thousand words.
Joachim Buwembo, a veteran Ugandan journalist who is now a Knight Foundation Fellow mentoring journalists in Tanzania, used this same argument to defend some of the graphic images from the Kampala bomb explosions. “There was some informational value in the pictures,” he said. “I was shocked to see pictures of dead people whose bodies were intact. I got the story from the pictures. ”
Newspaper editors speak out
I talked to several Ugandan editors about what informed their decisions to carry graphic pictures of dead victims.
Said Arinaitwe Rugyendo of the Red Pepper: “The news is becoming extremely competitive in Uganda. You can’t afford to leave out details. We are forced to run TV in the newspapers.”
He added: “There is a sense of shock value, but the pictures also have impact.”
Is it exploitative? Yes, Rugyendo said, but blamed it on the readers. “The reason they rush for the paper is because of the value they attach to [these gory details]. If it was offensive, they would not buy the paper. In fact, the perception of the readership—that Red Pepper will have the details—exerts pressure on us.”
Joseph Were, editor of The Independent, did not see any justification for the use of pictures of dead bodies.
“We don’t want to shock people who are already traumatised,” he said. “Grotesque pictures would spread the trauma.”
Did The Independent prefer sanitising an ugly reality? “That’s an argument that always comes up,” Were said, “but what’s the point of the gory pictures? The real story was that 74 people had died in the bomb blasts. It is dehumanising and also shows no respect for the dead and their relatives.”
He said some newspapers “exploit shock”. For Ugandan readers, no prizes for guessing which ones he was referring to.
Barbara Kaija, editor-in-chief of The New Vision Group, who also has overall editorial control over the Luganda-language daily, Bukedde, said, “We used the pictures because of the impact. It was to capture the enormity of the [carnage]. After that we stopped.”
Daniel Kalinaki, managing editor of Daily Monitor, said, “Ordinarily, we don’t use pictures of dead bodies, but in this case it was a seismic event and people needed to see the extent of the carnage. We thought showing the extent of the carnage was in public interest more than sanitising.”
He added, “After day one, the story had been told, so we used more dignified pictures.”
Kalinaki said he saw pictures in other newspapers that they could not have used at the Monitor. “There is a difference between running a picture to show the extent of the carnage and running a gory picture to shock,” he said.
Some newspapers went for the latter. This is “dehumanising the victims needlessly”, Kalinaki said. “There is a macabre fascination with death at some newspapers, it appears.”
Buwembo, who was replaced by Kalinaki at Daily Monitor, agreed that it was “not good to flog [the pictures].”
Charles Onyango-Obbo, the Executive Editor of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Division, said the newspapers, especially Red Pepper, went overboard with the pictures. “Beyond a certain point, those gory pictures don’t tell a story,” he said. “They only serve a morbid interest.”
Onyango-Obbo added: “And personally, I felt for the relatives of those people who were pictured dead in their chairs. How can they ever get over that?”
So, what would he have done had he still been in charge at the Monitor, which he co-founded?
“The one thing I would definitely have done is black out the faces of the victims,” Onyango-Obbo said. “And, I would have used only one picture, if at all. You don’t add anything by using 10.”
My own sense is that while the media should respect the sensibilities of their audiences and generally limit the use of explicit images of death, there are exceptional circumstances where the use of such pictures is justified. However, even in those circumstances editors and photographers need to reason out their decisions to publish. The decision to publish should never be a fait accompli.
Here are some considerations that could help newsrooms as they grapple with decisions over the use of graphic images of death and violence.
- Establish newsroom principles or guidelines on the use of disturbing images. At the Nation Media Group, where I was in charge of newsroom training until about a year ago, we had the following rule:
“The media should not publish anything that is obscene, vulgar or offensive to public good taste. A story, photograph or drawing/cartoon of questionable taste should have significant news value to justify its usage.” It went on: “…publication of photographs showing mutilated bodies, bloody incidents and abhorrent scenes should be avoided unless the publication of such photographs will serve the larger public interest.”
- What purpose does the use of graphic images serve? Is there a redeeming value in running the graphic images? Is there an inherent informational or journalistic value beyond satisfying morbid curiosity of audiences? These are fundamental questions that need to be answered in newsroom conversations on decisions to use graphic and shocking images.
- Are the bodies identifiable? It is more acceptable when they are not.
- Don’t show the same footage over and over (in the case of TV) or use the same pictures in newspapers.
- Consider having an editor’s note explaining the reasoning behind the decision to publish graphic images. Kenneth Irby, the director of the Visual Journalism Group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in the United States, says their research has shown that when there is some transparency in the coverage—such as sharing with audiences the process that journalists went through to make decisions about what to publish—news consumers are far more accepting of coverage of what would otherwise be considered offensive material.
- Consider publishing a clear warning on the front page of the newspaper, or reading out the warning in the case of television. That way, those who will be offended can choose not to go on reading or viewing.
- Consider uploading most pictures to your website, where there is a clear warning that some of the material could be offensive.
- Above all, look for and publish happy faces of the victims, if the relatives are okay with that. The Daily Monitor did exactly that on the front page of the July 13 edition. Those pictures, more of which other newspapers published in subsequent days, told a heartbreaking and most enduring human story; a story of mostly young people whose lives had been ended abruptly on a night when the whole world was supposed to be celebrating the end of Africa’s first World Cup.
About the Author: Dr. Mwesige is the Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence. He is a former head of the Department of Mass Communication at Makerere University where he was also a senior lecturer and a former executive editor of the Monitor.