How Graphic Should War Coverage Be? Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

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When I was a journalism student, a visiting professor once told us a story. His editors had sent him to cover a state execution, where he sat with members of the victim’s family and various representatives of the state. He watched this man die and returned to his office with a grisly story full of graphic details. His editor told him there was no way the paper could print something so horrifying, to which the then-reporter asked, “Then why did you send me?”


Going back even further than WWII, the intensely graphic photos that Matthew Brady and his team took on the matthew_brady_photobattlefields of the Civil War showed civilians, for the very first time, the true horror of war.  These photos are present at nearly every National Historic Battlefield and are an important reminder of what young men on both sides of the Civil War were willing to face for four years.  To my knowledge no one has protested to the NPS to take down the interpretive signs that show these pictures because they are too disturbing or violent.

It is easy to point to the people today who do not want to see modern-day war photos and say that they want to hide their heads in the sand – that they want to deny what is happening halfway around the world.  But there is also a key difference between battlefield photos now and then: Color.

Color photos of a dead soldier are much different than black and white photos.  How much more vivid and horrific would that photo of Kim Phuc been had it been published in color?  It is easy to overlook the blood, gore and trauma of a battlefield injury in black and white.  The mind knows it is there, but the emotions react more to the presence of the person in the photo, empathy and horror that this man or woman was gunned down in the prime of his life.

But color forces a person to see, first and above all else, the blood.  Red will draw the eye immediately.  No longer is the viewer looking at the person’s face and imagining being in that situation or sympathizing with the family left behind.  Rather, like watching a slasher movie, the viewer is simply looking at the grotesqueness of the injury, wherever that injury is.  I would argue that color in fact dehumanizes a battlefield photo so much that it DOES become obscene in a way.  It turns a very human tragedy into a Hollywood set piece.

That is not an excuse not to publish these kinds of photos.  But I do think we need to examine what we want to really show in these photos, what emotions we want to evoke, and whether or not the photos that show intense and graphic war violence in very living color will really accomplish what we’re setting out to do.

(Photo of Antietam by Matthew Brady)