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The “reality of war” or desensitisation of the public?

Samantha Luiz's picture

 Mainstream media have tended to tread carefully where pictures of war are concerned. There was almost a science to it- the ability to portray the terrible and horrific impact of war on families and society without showing actual dead bodies.

Now, this could be (and still can be) done through several ways. Think about those front pages extreme close-ups of grief-stricken families or personal belongings set against the backdrop of smoking ruins. The fact is, very few legacy media published actual dead bodies.

But the game is changing as revealed by the coverage of the MH17 disaster and war in Gaza Gaza. Now mainstream publications are taking strides to publish pictures that would have been considered highly unethical and thus censored. Think about when Time magazine published an image of a body of an MH17 passenger that had fallen through the roof of a home near the crash site. Or when another body was published on the front page of The Weekend Australian.

The site of the MH17 crash. Source:

The war in Gaza also produced similar reactions, with images of dead Palestinian children everywhere on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook. This impelled columnist Brendan O’Neill to politely ask, “Can everyone please stop posting photos of dead Palestinian children all over the internet?”

Some of the guilty publications have defended their decision to publish these images, citing it as a necessary evil to portray the “reality of war”.

After receiving complaints about the front page of The Weekend Australian, editor Michelle Gunn likened the decision to publish such pictures to walking a tight rope

“You’re balancing the imperative to convey the reality of the crime against the need not to cause unnecessary distress
We all believed it was the right decision. But there were important concessions we made in doing so.

We heavily cropped the photo to make sure you couldn’t identify who it was. We were also sensitive about picking a photo with not too much blood, burns or disfigurement.”

Is that supposed to make me feel better? If I was a friend or family member I wouldn’t care that you cropped out the photo. In fact, that decision would have had the opposite effect. I would have been traumatised for the obvious reasons- that ‘inconspicuous’ body could be someone I know. And if it wasn’t, what about the person I know. Empathy, dammit, empathy!

That said, I found these editorial decisions to be callous, distasteful and unnecessary- I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it added to the story besides being stained with sensationalism. Have we become so desensitised that it’s actually ok to share graphic images?

I think we are. We live in an age where we have internet access in our pockets. Of course this means that we have access to content beyond our wildest imaginations. Essentially, there is content for the perverts, sadists, and holy amongst us. With one click, we can view the filthiest of images without worrying about being watched and judged. Even scarier is our capability to easily contribute to this growing database of um alternative images.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by editorial or individual decisions to publish and share graphic images of war.
There seems to be a method to the madness. We live in an age where journalists are forced to compete with “citizen journalists”, explains Julie Posetti, an academic and Research Fellow with the world Association of Newspapers and News publishers in Paris.

“Images may need to be increasingly graphic to be deemed newsworthy.”

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