Student Media Watchdog Association

Seeing is Believing: Explicit Images in the U.S. News Media

In Uncategorized on October 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm

By Kelsey Heckert

As one of the publishing editors on The Leash, it is my job to look for pictures that can sum up an article. Pictures are worth a thousand words, right? Oftentimes, I look directly at the online article and use the picture that the respective news organization published. Sometimes, the articles I look at that did not make it to the front page or the home page—whether you’re reading print or online—don’t have associated pictures. Granted, I know that news articles are essentially “objective” reports, not comic strips, yet I still find the need to put a picture with each article.

For example, one of the Top Ten articles (October 3-9) recently reported on the Mexican drug cartels and there wasn’t an embedded picture. I went to Google News and typed in “Mexican drug cartels.” Imagine my surprise when I saw many famous news organizations’ names attached to pictures of dead bodies.

My first reaction was utter surprise. I was not expecting to see blatant death waved in my face. My second reaction was, “Well, I suppose this is what happens in Mexico when drug deals turn for the worst.” As I continued to go through popular news websites that included the search term “Mexican Drug Cartels,” I saw both covert and overt images of lifeless bodies. Captions included words like “gunshot wound,” “murder,” and “victim,” yet there was little blood to be seen. Today, it seems like the U.S. news visually represents 40% of the aftermaths of murder, but I still remember the controversies of showing the “collateral damage” of war in Iraq, particularly involving American soldiers. Notice that the picture I ended up choosing for the article was a supposed Mexican cartel member, alive and kickin’.


I’d like to think that my reaction was relatively “normal,” but I also know that my reception of these graphic images is socially constructed from U.S. news media. From my experience with media, I have noticed that newspapers in other nations seem to have more liberal standards when it comes to photos in news stories.  I haven’t grown up seeing dead bodies in the news while other nations’ audiences expect to see the realities represented.

For example, Thursday morning I was looking through tweets on my phone and saw that CNN and the New York Times were reporting rumors that Qaddafi was dead, which they confirmed within 5-10 minutes. I was in the middle of deciding exactly where I wanted to go with this editorial, and it wasn’t until I saw Al Jazeera’s tweet about a mobile picture upload of the dead body that I knew this was a great opportunity to check this hypothesis.

When the story was just breaking and in the rumor stage, my go-to news site was CNN. Staring back at me was an alive and kickin’ Qaddafi with a headline questioning the authenticity of the death rumor. Next, I went to where I was almost certain I would see the mobile picture of Qaddafi’s body- Al Jazeera English. To my surprise, the title confirmed Qaddafi’s death but the image simply said “Al Jazeera: Breaking News.” Puzzled, I then decided to go to Al Jazeera’s main website. I didn’t need any translations when I saw a photo of Qadadfi’s dead, bloody corpse with its eyes open.

I then returned to the CNN website, which had updated the breaking news story within 5 minutes. The new image was black with text, warning the viewers that clicking the image will reveal a graphic image. After clicking, I saw the same picture that graced Al Jazeera’s cover, hiding behind a warning slide.

Two hours later—after I got out of a class I should’ve been paying attention in—I get back to my monitoring of the news. All news organizations agreed upon the story that the rebels, who have been out for blood since the upheaval two months ago, have killed Qaddafi. I proceeded to seven websites: CNN, New York Times, Al Jazeera English, BBC, Fox News, and the Los Angeles Times. Only tThree of the six featured the lifeless corpse: Al Jazeera English, BBC, and Fox News.

Given the results of my simple observational study, American news media is self-censored. An exception is to be made for Fox News, who made the decision to show the image to support its headline “Death of a Tyrant.” All other American publications decided to either show a portrait of Qaddafi or Libyan protesters with a sunny background.

The problem is anybody would be able to make these conclusions even if they haven’t studied media. Instead you could say: I also found that others were able to guess these conclusions even if they hadn’t studied the media. I went to the extent to quiz several friends: “Out of these seven news media outlets, who was likely to publish the dead body? The protesters? The living Qaddafi?” While most hesitated on Fox News, everyone was surprised in being fairly confident in answering the questions—correctly, I might add.

From these impromptu quizzes, I gathered that American news consumers are conscious to the censorship in the news. Is this a bad thing? It depends on how you look at it, but most importantly, it depends on how you feel about the censoring. For example, should children be exposed to such explicit material? My initial reaction was “Of course not!” but that reaction comes directly from the way I was raised and the fact that I reacted negatively when initially seeing the dead Mexican bodies. Children outside of the U.S. see graphic images in the news media, and studies have shown that they understand more about the world than Americans.

As a side note, while exploring the images of Qaddafi, I noticed that I had a higher tolerance level to the explicit nature of his death in comparison to browsing for a Mexican drug cartel picture. Although I was purposely searching for pictures that I knew would never be in any Disney film, there was an unwitting, internal understanding that I was going to see graphic images—simple as that. Will U.S. news begin to transition? I think it’s already begun. The way CNN added a warning label as a precursor to Qaddafi’s body tells me that there is definitely thought being put into the idea.  Regardless, I don’t think America is ready for consistent portrayals of death in the mainstream media. The U.S. news is publishing graphic images focused outside of the nation’s boundaries, which also fall under the theme of crime and protests. Seeing that the United States is much more concerned about its economy for now, I think news pictures will stay PG for the time being.

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  1. Do you know if any of the cable or broadcast news stations showed some of these images? I wonder if they self-censored themselves even more than news websites.

  2. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the resources to look at any cable/broadcast news, but I’d definitely suspect more self-censorship, particularly on the broadcast channels. My personal opinion is that television news channels probably glimpsed the body, but I’d imagine that there would either be a prolonged, extensive warning or the picture would be edited by a black censor bar or a blurring edit. Did you catch any of the TV news on Thursday morning?

    –Kelsey

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