Monday was awful. We can only imagine the horror experienced by victims and witnesses in Boston.
Or, actually, maybe that's not entirely true. To a degree, we can imagine it. Because, although we didn't feel the shake of the earth or boom of the explosions, we did see it happening — almost in real time. We saw it whether we wanted to, or not.
It raises lots of questions — none of them really new — both for media organizations and for every human on the Internet.
For the media: Do we continue to refrain or warn audiences of graphic content? Or do we publish images that are already circulating, to stay relevant? There are several considerations — like respect for victims and their families, or just general concern for consumers of media — that should inform our decisions.
Bob Steele, a scholar in the field of journalism ethics, says a reporter's mission is to strike a balance between seeking the truth and minimizing harm:
"The reality is that if we are to tell the truth we will cause some harm," he says.
But how much harm? A recent (and not entirely surprising) study at the University of California, Irvine, revealed that a "steady diet of graphic media images may have long-lasting mental and physical health consequences," the official news release reads.
In Monday's case, NPR initially published an AP photo of a victim in a wheelchair, whose legs had been blown off. The published image had been cropped by the AP to conceal the most graphic part, but NPR decided shortly after publishing it to remove the image because "we could illustrate the situation every bit as well with other photos," an editor here says.
The Atlantic had also published the same image, uncropped in its very graphic entirety, but later decided to blur the victim's face. At that point, though, wasn't the damage already done?
Honestly, though, let's push all of that aside. Because media ethics are the easier part of the equation. Professionals can ultimately reach a consensus on which rules to follow (for the most part) and can hold each other accountable.
But what about the rest of society? What the mainstream media do seems almost irrelevant when, for instance, like many people, I first saw photos on Twitter. There was no editor protecting me from it. Or vetting the information. I mean, obviously: It's the Internet.
But I wasn't expecting it. I was caught off-guard. And what's more: It suddenly seemed as though every other person on Twitter was retweeting it. Everyone had something to say. But ... why?
"There are lots of people that use things without thought — and poorly," Steele says. "I think somebody who's going to tweet a photo of a sensitive scene does have an ethical obligation to recognize what the consequences are. What's the purposes of it? What good does it serve?"
Sometimes it does serve good. Like if authorities need help identifying a person. And sometimes just saying something out loud can be therapeutic.
Maybe the reality (again nothing new) is that the more we are estranged from face-to-face contact, the less we think about what we say and do. There's less accountability. The repercussions aren't necessarily lesser, but they're a lot harder to see.
"I think we must create a new civic ethic that addresses these issues because the collateral damage to vulnerable people can be great," says Steele.
Easier said than done, though. Wouldn't a new civic ethic take some consensus? Maybe it just takes time.
And maybe, until we've found our ethics, the only thing we can control is what we consume. "Click responsibly," is one tip offered by Rebecca Greenfield of The Atlantic.
You tell us. What do you want to see from the media? And how do you govern your behavior on social media? When you retweet a graphic image, why do you do it?
More food for thought:
- The Washington Post: "What Are We Losing In The Web's Images Of Suffering And Schadenfreude?"
- The Atlantic: "The Stories Behind the Most Indelible Images of the Boston Bombing"
- The Atlantic: "How Social Media After The Boston Bombing Can Be A Recipe For PTSD"
- Yahoo: "Boston Marathon Bombing: Twitter, Vine, and a Faster Terror"