Publishing Disturbing Photos

Disturbing images may show the real situation to the readers. However, some people think journalists should protect the public and hold the disturbing images. Others may think that disturbing images reflect the reality and have its importance. There is actually no clear-cut right-or-wrong answer but journalists can refer to different guidelines and suggestions to decide whether publishing the disturbing images or not.

According to the The society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) code of ethics, it mentions about disturbing images in section 2 which stated ‘show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage – Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief – Show good taste, avoid pandering to lurid curiosity’. The code does not directly tell journalists how to deal with disturbing images, but the basic principle is to avoid causing harm to people.

Kenneth Irby (2002), a former photo editor and now the founder of the Poynter Institute’s photojournalism program, suggested a three guiding principles for making decisions to publish the disturbing photo or not. The suggestions are Maximize truth-telling, Act independently and Minimize harm.

There are lots of controversial images published and the photo of Alan Kurdi is one of them. Alan was a three-year-old boy who had drowned along with his mother and brother, in an attempt to leave Syria. The photo of him lying face down on the shoreline caught global attention on the growing refugee crisis, and the image had swept around the world on social media within few hours. Some people argued that news outlet did not need to publish the photo as there was the photo that a soldier picked up Alan’s dead body. However, the executive producer of The National, Mark Harrison, replied to the complaints that the team thought the photo was ‘essential to understanding the story’ so they decided to publish the photo.

In conclusion, when journalists deciding to publish the disturbing photo or not, they should think about do the photo cause harm to readers and can the photo able to convince readers more than text.


Enkin 2015, The boy on the beach and the use of disturbing images, CBC.

Irby 2002, When Disturbing Photos Run, Poynter.

Section 2, SPJ Code of Ethics.


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