Since the start of 2022 there have been more than 300 mass shootings in the United States. The public rarely sees the violent reality of mass shootings, so when journalists do get hold of images from them, is it their duty to publish them?
“A horrific scene unfolding this is just outside of Chicago authorities on the scene of a deadly shooting at a fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois.”ABC News
“And now we add Highland Park Illinois to the list that no city, no town, no suburb wants to be on. Another shooter, another list of victims whose stories we will read and watch through tear-brimmed eyes.”NBC News
Lynn Sweet is a journalist for a newspaper called the Chicago Sun Times and on the 4th of July she was enjoying an Independence Day parade with family and friends.
But when she heard gunshots and screams her professional instincts kicked in.
“She sent over three photos that I can really remember and don’t think I will forget. One was a girl walking toward a pool of blood. […] One was of a person who was covered in blood and, and almost unrecognizable as a person. And then one, um, was the one that ultimately decided to run, which had two, um, two people on laying on the stairs who, who had died. And, uh, the blood was kind of trailing down the stairway and behind those bodies.”Jennifer Kho
That’s Jennifer Kho, the editor of the Chicago Sun Times.
What she’s describing are some photographs that Lynn Sweet took immediately after the gunman shot from a rooftop, killing seven people and seriously injuring dozens more.
“Both the round and the rifle were designed in the 1950s for the military. The result was the M16 for our troops and the AR15 for civilians.”CBS News
The gunman at Highland Park used an incredibly powerful, military-grade weapon similar to an AR-15.
“There’s going to be a lot more damage to the tissues, both bones, organs, whatever gets kind of even near this bullet path.”CBS News
Weapons like that are popular among many American gun owners – millions of rifles are manufactured or imported into the US every single year – but sadly they’re also popular among mass shooters who are intent on killing as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.
And often people are protected from the true horror that weapons like that can inflict on their victims, because we rarely see graphic pictures from the scenes of these crimes.
Most of the photos published after mass shootings are of the police, distraught relatives or community vigils.
Showing the reality of what these guns can do means publishing violent, bloody images – and that’s not a decision any editor would take lightly.
“It was kind of back and forth on what to do because, on the one hand, you know, some of them were so, so gory, um, and, and pretty gruesome. And then on the other hand, it was like every other picture I saw of the event, I felt like it didn’t actually tell the story anymore.”Jennifer Kho
At first, Jennifer Kho thought she couldn’t run any of the pictures her colleague had taken. They were just too shocking, too upsetting.
But as the day went on and she saw the other photos coming from Highland Park – of police at the scene, or of empty chairs dotted along the parade route – she began to think that maybe the paper had a responsibility to publish the ones Lynn Sweet had taken.
“People were thinking, you know that by not running these pictures, are we sanitising what happened? Isn’t it our job as journalists to kind of document these historic moments and these important moments.”Jennifer Kho
It wasn’t an easy call to make, so Jennifer Kho spent the day talking to her team at the Sun Times and to other journalists. She asked leading media ethics experts for guidance too.
There were plenty of questions to think about:
– Which pictures, if any, should they run?
– How could the newspaper make sure the pictures weren’t shared out of context?
– And would using them really help tell the story, or would they just make readers want to turn away, or create more trauma for the victims?
After all those discussions, Jennifer Kho decided to publish one of the pictures that Lynn Sweet had taken that day, but with a few protections in place.
The photo that the Sun Times decided to show was of two victims, covered with blankets, so their faces weren’t visible.
They cropped the photo so you couldn’t see the body of one of the victims and they reduced the resolution so you couldn’t identify them.
The newspaper only published it 24 hours after the shooting – and after the names of all the victims had been released publicly.
The team also took precautions to make sure the image was displayed in a sensitive way.
The photo was only published online and they put it behind a clickable panel that explained what was behind it.
They wanted to make sure that anyone who saw it knew what to expect and readers weren’t just confronted with it while browsing the website
“Obviously I don’t want to be causing harm, but in the end what I thought was actually that the photos themselves were not causing the harm. And we could minimize that harm.”Jennifer Kho
Ultimately, Jennifer Kho decided to run the photograph because it showed the brutality of these military-style weapons, which are pretty easy to buy in many parts of America
What I felt was that gun violence was really top of public policy discussions right now in the US. They keep happening, they keep happening. I think there’s more than 300 or something so far this year. And it’s like, it’s only halfway over.
“And I think there’s been a lot of discussions particularly about rifles. And so I thought part of it was kind of showing, you know, what it actually means, what it actually enables when a shooter has one of these types of weapons. The kind of damage that they can do in, you know, six seconds at a time or in just mere seconds.”Jennifer Kho
The debate about gun rights versus gun violence is a matter of national importance in the United States.
As Jennifer Kho said, there have been more than 300 mass shootings already this year…370, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive – that’s around 12 a week.
The picture the Chicago Sun Times published confronts you with what that number really means. That the lives of countless innocent people are being destroyed by guns made for war.
Today’s episode was written and mixed by Ella Hill.