Graphic Images: Burying Gaddafi’s Corpse or Putting it on the Front Page?

The photo shows a portion of a graffiti portrait of dictator Muammar Gaddafi from St. Romain, France.

by Jessica Andrews

In the morning, you sit down and open the newspaper, and before you can even get your morning cup of coffee, you’re confronted with a bloody body. Depending where in the world you wake up, this may have happened to you before.

Internationally, the treatment of graphic imagery in the media varies greatly. Due to different societal norms and ethical standards, the culture of a country or region affects how a news organization might choose to deal with a graphic photo or video. The most recent example of this is how the media treated the death of former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

The Poynter Institute looked at the front pages of major U.S. and international newspapers the day after Gaddafi’s death.  Only seven of 424 U.S. papers showed a large image of the bloody body of Gaddafi after his death on their front page. And around a dozen more used small images of a dead Gaddafi. Overall, a pretty small number.

When looking through the front pages of international papers on the Newseum’s website,  I found many more instances of graphic photos of Gaddafi. More than 35 of the 140 European papers used a photo of Gaddafi’s body on their front page. While not the majority, it was still a much larger ratio than in U.S. papers. And some, like Belgium’s De Morgen, used a full page photo of the deceased Gaddafi. The vast majority of Middle Eastern papers used a graphic photo, with only a few refraining. The five African papers on the Newseum website all showed the image. In the Asian papers, many used a photo, but it was usually fairly small.

Whether or not a country or a region showed the graphic photo or video is related to its cultural norms and ideals. Comparing Europe to the U.S., Europe tends to be more open about most things they allow in their media, whether it is violence, language or sex. The U.S. is more conservative and has more restrictions on what is considered by American standards to be “adult content.” The Middle Eastern and African papers may have been more likely to use the photo, because, perhaps, they’re used to this type of violence. Unfortunately, violent deaths are a more common occurrence in some of these countries and it’s probably not uncommon for these papers to feature graphic photos of this nature.

The trends of print media did not necessarily carry over into other forms of media. Photos and videos could be found on most news websites globally.  (For another discussion on global depictions of violence, please see: “Searching for Truth in a World of Death, Violence & Media Voyeurism.”) The difference with online images though is that a news consumer must go online and seek them out, as opposed to having them stare out at you from the newsstand. Most television networks internationally also played video or showed images, especially the cable networks. I think this simply speaks to the need for multimedia material in TV news. If they hadn’t shown the video or photos, what would they have shown while they reported the story? It becomes difficult in situations like these to avoid using stock imagery.

So although most broadcast news organizations decided to play the video, the difference comes is in how they defended that decision. According to The Atlantic Wire, American news organizations like FOX News and MSNBC issued in-depth explanations stating they tried to make sure they balanced the need for truth and verification of Gaddafi’s death with decency. And both FOX and CNN said they consistently warned viewers that the images they were about to show were graphic. Al Jazeera officials on the other hand didn’t feel they needed to explain themselves. They simply said “It’s clearly newsworthy, and we decided to air it.”

The difference in usage of graphic photos and footage also stems from a difference in international journalism ethics codes. While some U.S. ethic codes explicitly address violent imagery, very few ethics codes from other countries do. Although most international ethics codes were originally based on Western codes, they are changing to become more localized. As Elisabeth Best puts it in a story for Miller-McCune magazine’s website, “Many nations, even Western ones, have their own culturally specific standards, implying that a one-size-fits all ethical code in journalism not only does not exist […] but probably wouldn’t work. Research shows that from Cameroon to Pakistan and South Africa to Germany, journalism ethics reflect local realities and not global standards.”

(The photo is by Thierry Ehrmann of Saint Romain au Mont d’Or, France via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

This entry was posted in Al Jazeera, CNN, Ethics, FOX News, Journalism, Libya, Media, MSNBC, Newspapers, Photography, Videos and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Graphic Images: Burying Gaddafi’s Corpse or Putting it on the Front Page?

  1. Pingback: Editor’s Notes: Mille Gracias | Sutradhar's Market

  2. That’s a good point, but I think it’s a fairly safe comparison to make if you just look at the ratios. Plus the fact that there are less European papers, but more European papers with Gaddafi’s photo actually speaks for itself even more than if the number of papers compared had been equal. Thanks for reading, Brendan!

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