To show or not to show: videos of vulnerable sources

By Lex Talamo

“Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrong doing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding, and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated.”—National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics

For decades, viewers have criticized the media for sensationalizing stories to get subscriptions or, more recently, page views. Gory images and grisly videos have proliferated on TV broadcasts and online venues, raising controversy about what’s appropriate for the public to see. When a story contains graphic or potentially offensive content, ethical questions arise about the newsworthiness and purpose of making that content accessible.

For reporters, a tension exists between showing the truth of a situation while being sensitive and respectful to viewers and victims, especially when vulnerable populations are involved. According to the American Journal of Managed Care, a “vulnerable population” includes people who are “economically disadvantaged, racial/ethnic minorities … uninsured … children,” and those who have chronic health conditions.

The tension between telling an important story and being sensitive has been at the center of multimedia work I have done for my current internship at News 21, an investigative unit based in Phoenix, Arizona. This summer News 21 hired a team of almost 40 student reporters to take a comprehensive look at how legalizing marijuana is affecting the country.

One of my stories involved covering parents who are advocating for access to medical marijuana for their chronically ill children. My reporting took me for a week to Pennsylvania, where medical marijuana is illegal. My team and I traveled to 15 cities throughout the Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia areas, and met with eight families and several doctors. Several ethical dilemmas resulted from that trip.

One of the mothers had put together a series of YouTube videos in an attempt to explain to politicians and legislators what it was like to be the mother of a severely epileptic child. The YouTube videos showed her child strapped into a bright pink helmet, alternately contorting with pain and lying comatose after grand mal seizures. The girl had tried different diets and 18 different seizure medications as well as having a Vagus Nerve Stimulator and a feeding tube installed—but the seizures continued. The mother shared the links to the videos with us and gave us her permission to use them in our project.

Hannah Pallas, 12, wears a helmet to protect her from sudden drop seizures caused by intractable epilepsy. (Photo courtesy of Heather Shuker)

Hannah Pallas, 12, wears a helmet to protect her from sudden drop seizures caused by intractable epilepsy. (Photo courtesy of Heather Shuker)







In the end, we didn’t use the videos, because News 21 prefers for us to use our own footage, but we did film her daughter undergoing several seizures and we included them in our final project. Showing these videos to our audience served a journalistic purpose: audiences would better understand what a seizure entails (as well as the devastating long-term effects of repeated seizures) when they saw one as opposed to reading a description of one. A disadvantage would have been that these graphic images of the child are out in cyberland forever—even though the mother wanted her daughter’s story out there. But because of that, the family is vulnerable to public comments. Some of the comments posted in response to the YouTube videos are offensive: “If that was my kid I would move ASAP to a legal state. Even Florida allows growing and consuming since last year for true medical purposes if there is no better alternative. MOVE, your state isn’t all that great anyways.”

Two other ethical dilemmas came up in our reporting. The first involved whether we would use certain photographs. A 17-year-old girl’s “drop seizures”—seizures during which the girl violently and unexpectedly collapsed to the floor—left her with several missing teeth, bruises under her eyes and stitches in her forehead. The mother allowed us to film her daughter and take photos, saying, “I hate to see her beautiful face like this, but people need to see this.” In the end, the pictures did not make the final editorial cut; instead we were able to use some of the mother’s thoughts in the print section of our piece.

Our main ethical issue arose when two of the mothers we were scheduled to interview ended up in the same hospital on the same day with their daughters, both of whom had experienced a series of life-threatening seizures. We contacted the mothers and received permission to take video gear into the rooms; then we contacted the public relations department of the hospital and received their permission as well.

When we arrived to film, we were told by our public relations liaison that we would be flanked by a hospital staff member for the duration of our interviews. I was concerned about whether the hospital staff member would report the mothers for advocating for medical marijuana for their children when speaking with us; several mothers in other states had told us they had been reported to child protective services for less. Before I went into the interviews, I called my editor and asked her about potential repercussions. Her response was, “They are adults. They are making the decision to talk with us.” So I did ask questions about medical marijuana and, even in the hospital rooms, the mothers were open in their opinions. We’ve kept in touch with the mothers, and there have been no repercussions from our visit so far.

Thankfully, I had a superb editor who helped guide me through some of these reporting dilemmas. But I was left wondering how to handle situations like these that are likely to arise as I move forward in my reporting career. I started looking into various codes of ethics. The Online Guide for Journalists Who Report on Crimes and Crime Victims states, “On the one hand, it is important that news organizations do not sanitize the impact of criminal violence in our culture. However, on the other hand, sensational/grisly images often wound victims and their families without informing the public, many of whom are repelled.”

Two contemporary issues that exemplify this tension are the beheading of James Foley by ISIS and the Sarin gas attack in Damascus. The beheading of James Foley and other victims of ISIS were newsworthy events. Showing the video presented a portrayal of the terrorist act that was true and accurate. News outlets that decided to show the video attempted to be respectful to viewers by issuing warnings, such as the following by Bret Baier of Fox News:

The images are brutal. They are graphic. They are upsetting. You may want to turn away. You may want to have the children leave the room right now. But the reason we’re showing you is to bring you the reality of Islamic terrorism and to label it as such we feel you need to see it.”

Similarly, Reuters defended its decision to show the images by saying that they were indispensable to helping viewers understand the situation. According to their ethics policy, the determining factor in such cases is “whether the material is necessary to an understanding of the reality portrayed or described.

But the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, argued, “There is no journalistic value to my mind of showing what a beheading looks like.”

Another contemporary example involved CBS reporter Scott Pelley’s work “A Crime Against Humanity,” which covered the 2013 Sarin gas attack in Syria that killed 1,429 people, an estimated 426 of whom were children. The video segment showed the effects of the gas on the human body as people were dying. Pelley stated that the footage was necessary for understanding the degree of atrocity committed.

“If you don’t see it, I don’t believe the impact truly hits you. Even though people will be disturbed by what they see, it has to be seen,” Pelley told 60 Minutes Overtime. “We wanted the world to see what this was in all its ugliness. You can read about [the attack] all day, but if you don’t see it, I don’t believe the impact truly hits you.”

But others do not concur. Recently, an ethics professor at Arizona State University who prepared to show his journalism students the Sarin gas video met with resistance. One woman raised her hand and said, “If you show that video, I will walk out. I didn’t come to class to watch kids die.”           

An essential element of journalism is bearing witness to reality—a reality that isn’t always pretty. As Andrew Alexander, ombudsman of the Washington Post, said about covering a devastating earthquake in Haiti, “There is always this difficult line between respecting the sensibilities of your readers… but also trying to capture the reality of something.”

To help journalists and editors find the right balance, the Radio TV Digital News Association provides guiding questions about graphic content:

  • What is the journalistic purpose? Does it clarify/help the audience understand?
  • Is this the only way to tell the story? Are there alternatives?
  • How will reporters justify the decision to publish the content?
  • What are the pros and cons of publishing the graphic content?

These and other guidelines reinforce the advice given to me by my editor and my belief that reporting on graphic content related to vulnerable populations requires truth but also sensitivity, purpose and permission when minors are involved. During our reporting in Pennsylvania, we were careful to follow a guideline on the Americares website, which encourages media not to disturb doctors or nurses in their work. We paused our interviews and stepped outside whenever a nurse needed to come in and change a child’s IV or check in with the family.

Other tips online for journalists in similar situations recommended seeking full permission from the parents of the minor, being respectful and building rapport before filming, and showing films and stories to the parents to make sure everything is contextualized and correct. Collaborations between editors and reporters are encouraged to make sure that facts remain correct after the final edit.

Many journalists also strongly recommend being transparent. Accordingly, we told the parents were interviewed that we were objective journalists dedicated to accurately portraying their children’s stories, but that we were not there to choose sides or to be a catalyst to speed along marijuana legislation. Being upfront with parents about our purpose and our coverage’s limitations was well received by the mothers.

Collaborating with the sources and inviting them into the fact-checking process can ensure that victims and their families retain some control and feel empowerment about their own stories, while being transparent with sources about the roles and responsibilities of objective journalism help to maintain a journalist’s professional role.

Using graphic images and videos can help viewers have a deeper understanding of the situation. As Susan Sontag wrote in an essay on photography in 2003, “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.” By combining ethics with meaningful images and video, visual storytelling can raise the impact of a story to a much more powerful level.

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Editor’s Note—Lex Talamo on her choice of subject for her feature article: “The most meaningful journalism workshops for me during the FASPE 2015 trip were about reporting on vulnerable populations and the ethics of photographing violence and atrocity. Since the start of my journalism journey, I have been fascinated by the profession’s obligation to bear witness and seek the truth. Because of my teaching background with at-risk youth, I am also seriously concerned about the ethics of covering vulnerable populations. What started as thoughts sparked by the FASPE discussions and my personal experience grew into real conundrums when I started my News 21 internship following my return from Germany and Poland. One of the main questions that drove me to write the above feature was: How do you tell a compelling, accurate and truthful story while preserving the dignity of the children and families you cover?”

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