Graphic images and the duality of human interest

On my way to work this morning I chanced upon this intriguing piece about the ethics of using graphic images in news reporting. It is a response to Chris Elliott’s piece from yesterday’s Guardian, in which he considers part of the newspaper’s editorial code. The section in question stipulates that: “People should be treated with sensitivity during periods of grief and trauma.” As Elliott rightly points out, this is a very subjective standard.

I was still contemplating where the lines should be drawn when I reached London Bridge underground station. I was concerned to see that barriers had been put up around a section of the stairs. As I drew closer I realised that there was a man lying there, injured and bleeding. His distress was palpable, but, to my relief, he was receiving medical treatment. It still felt uncomfortable to hear his cries of pain and yet be impotent to help.

Nonetheless, I felt compelled to watch what happened. So, it seemed, did many of my fellow commuters, some of whom actually stopped to look at the unfortunate man. They appeared as embarrassed as I was at our collective curiosity.

Then, just as suddenly as I was grasped by the desire to look, I was struck by an equally strong urge to leave. I found myself walking down the escalator a little faster than normal, wanting to distance myself from what I had seen.

There is something deeply primitive about this response to visible suffering. Seeing an injured person alerts us to the possibility that we could be in danger. What happened to that person could just as easily happen to us. By looking closely at his injuries we are able to assess their likely cause and the level of risk presented. Having evaluated the situation we then want to remove ourselves from the zone of potential danger – as quickly as possible.

This instinct could help to explain the duality of people’s views about graphic reporting of strangers’ injuries. We want to gain an accurate impression of the level of damage that has been done, which is why we object to “sanitised” images which offend our levels of comprehension. But, having looked at the image for a certain period of time, our instincts tell us to flee. But there is nowhere for us to go. We cannot truly remove ourselves, so instead we ask that the photographs are removed. But if that happens then we can’t make our own judgements about the level of threat a situation poses, thus creating the cyclical dilemma we currently face.

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