In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Dr. David Baum, an obstetrician in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, described the “horrific scene” when a gunman rained rifle shots down on a Fourth of July parade through the community on Monday.
Actually, to me, the more precise word he used to describe some of the injuries was “unspeakable.”
The people killed were “blown up by that gunfire,” he said, “blown up. The horrific scene of some of the bodies is unspeakable for the average person.”
This shooting — and Baum’s description — has extended a roiling debate about whether media should show what rounds from high-powered rifles can do to the human body.
Most of America has very likely never seen a fatal gunshot wound of any sort. Our mental image of a fatal gunshot wound has been created by our cultural imagery: Hollywood … and video games. They are either clean kills (sometimes even bloodless ones, leaving clothes undisturbed apart from an entry hole burned into the fabric) or gory, cartoonish killings that produce more humor than horror.
What we don’t see is the reality of these rifles’ decapitating children in Uvalde, Texas; shredding organs until they look like “an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer” at a high school in Parkland, Fla.; and leaving at least one person, according to Baum, with an “unspeakable head injury” in Highland Park.
But should America be forced to confront the truth of the carnage it so often ignores? Would these images shock the country out of its morbid malaise and into action to address an unconscionable — and fully preventable — public health crisis that guns have created?
The Journalist’s Resource at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy recently explored this very issue, interviewing 12 experts on the journalistic ethics at play, and the issue was more complicated than one might think.
There are some thorny questions that must be thought through. What makes one image worthy of publication but not another? Would the publication of one, or some, open the floodgates to most, if not all? Could the images simply become part of the gore that is three clicks away on any web search, elevating it to acceptable, common consumption? Could it have the opposite effect than intended: allowing copycats to use the images in a game of one-upmanship, or online trolls to wield them against the families of the victims?
The issue of consent is crucial: Isn’t it imperative that the families of the victims approve of the use?
Interestingly, there seems to be no clear industry standard. News organizations seem to be acting as a council of elders, erring on the side of restraint, which is understandable in my view.
But the time for that restraint should end. I now believe that the public’s need to know has overtaken its need to be shielded from horror. In fact, on some level, not allowing the public access to some version of the gore is extending a form of disinformation, permitting a warped, naïve or incorrect impression to persist when it could be corrected.
On Wednesday, I spoke with the Rev. Kenny Irby, a photographer who started the Poynter Institute’s photojournalism program. He agreed that the time had come for these images to be shown because of the “fierce urgency” of the moment.
Of course, Irby warned that the images would need to be contextualized in the proper way, but he insisted that “the media has to be part of the delivery mechanism that shows people what the true impact” of gun violence is.
The question of context is one that must be considered. Should the images be shown during regular newscasts or on front pages of newspapers, or should they be sequestered to news organizations’ websites, behind warning labels?
For some, we are now in a post-label era.
“I’m so done with warning labels,” Sue Morrow, editor of the National Press Photographers Association’s News Photographermagazine, told me on Wednesday.
As she put it, “I’m of the camp that it’s about damn time that we do start publishing this stuff, with the caveat that we have to be sensitive to the relatives left behind.”
Even if there will never be full agreement on this point, it is important to understand that humans can become desensitized to anything, even extreme inhumanity. Look no further than the postcards produced of lynched bodies.
The publication of these images may not lead to an immediate policy change that some predict it will. Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, for instance, has argued that showing images of the children killed in the Uvalde shooting might generate another “Emmett Till moment.”
But while the images of Till’s brutalized body helped spark the civil rights movement, the images themselves didn’t move politicians to change policies. In fact, the first major policy win of the movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, came nearly a decade after Till’s murder and after many other deaths.
The first confrontation with those images galvanized the will of the oppressed to fight but not the willingness of the lawmakers to act. The status quo resists all impulse to be shocked.
That is why we need to see these images not for shock value but for truth value.
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