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Nov. 16, 2023, 11:58 a.m.

The Washington Post takes the “unusual step” of publishing graphic photos from mass shootings

The Post is not running the photos in print, and executive editor Sally Buzbee said digital format was key to creating a “very careful presentation” that “allows readers to make choices along the way.”

Could newsrooms publishing photos from mass shootings help stop them? The question has been asked before, but the deaths of 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas seemed to spur a louder-than-ever debate last year. Perhaps, some argued, news coverage has been insufficiently upsetting.

“Terror on Repeat,” a new report in The Washington Post’s series on the AR-15, draws on photos, videos, and the experiences of survivors and first responders from 11 mass killings over the past 11 years. One of the most harrowing is a short video from the Parkland shooting in which gunshots and wounded students can be heard. Another — the only one to show bodies — depicts dead and wounded concertgoers in Las Vegas. There are, also, previously unpublished and “intensely graphic” photos and videos showing the immediate aftermath of the shooting in Uvalde.

The multimedia package, published online early Thursday morning, is affecting — and effective — storytelling. The piece collected more than 1,200 comments in its first few hours. “This honest article with the pictures left me heartbroken, in tears, and with my hair standing up on my arms,” one reader wrote. “This article needs to be seen everywhere, not just here.”

In a letter to readers, Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee called the publication of these images an “unusual step” for the newsroom, writing in part (full memo at the end of this story):

Like other news organizations, we cover the effects of these tragedies when they occur. But because journalists generally do not have access to crime scenes and news organizations rarely if ever publish graphic content, most Americans have no way to understand the full scope of an AR-15’s destructive power or the extent of the trauma inflicted on victims, survivors and first responders when a shooter uses this weapon on people. […]

Before viewing the graphic content, our reporters and editors participated in training by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, learning best practices for viewing disturbing photos and discussing how publishing them could affect readers. At the same time, reporters and editors engaged in intensive discussions over the merits of publishing disturbing photographs and videos. We engaged in conversations with advocates, including victims’ families, some of whom see a potential value in publishing content to increase public awareness and others who see such publication as dehumanizing and traumatizing.

Our team grappled with our own standard practices when it comes to publishing graphic content. We seek to be thoughtful about how doing so affects victims of violence and those who care about them, but we also recognize that at times disturbing photos and videos can add to an accurate understanding of events. We also realize that news outlets are often more comfortable publishing pictures of violence overseas, where some of our readers are less likely to have a direct connection.

For this project, we established one ground rule at the start of our reporting: If we sought to publish any pictures of identifiable bodies, we would seek permission from the families of the victims. Some families indicated they would be open to granting permission, but ultimately we decided that the potential harm to victims’ families outweighed any potential journalistic value of showing recognizable bodies. We ultimately included nine photos from the Uvalde files showing scenes inside the classrooms taken shortly after bodies were removed. In addition, we show sealed body bags in the school hallway.

Buzbee has previously written to readers about how the Post covers mass shootings and why the news org recreated the damage an AR-15 does to a human body in 3-D images. In a separate interview this week, she said publishing the images and videos in “Terror on Repeat” was a decision closer to an exception than a policy change likely to affect how the Post plans to think about graphic content in the future.

“I don’t think that this will radically change our day-to-day calculations,” Buzbee said. “We don’t want to — on a day-to-day basis — shock people with graphic imagery or desensitize people to violence.”

Journalists typically do not have access to mass shooting locations to document them and many of the photos published were taken by police and survivors. “Even when photographs are available, news organizations generally do not publish them, out of concern about potentially dehumanizing victims or retraumatizing their families,” notes the Post’s article, bylined by Silvia Foster-Frau, N. Kirkpatrick, and Arelis R. Hernández.

Post journalists filed more than 30 public records requests for medical examiner records, crime scene photographs, police body-camera footage, court records, and other materials. Most of the requests were rejected by officials citing exemptions to public records laws and personal privacy. The Post published a companion article — “As mass shootings multiplied, the horrific human cost was concealed” — on Thursday that raises questions about state lawmakers increasingly restricting access to sensitive records depicting the victims of gun violence. It asks: when does the public have a right to know — to see — the damage these AR-15s cause?

“We wrote about the debate over what should be in the public domain,” Buzbee said. “We do think there’s a legitimate debate here about the accountability nature of what happens at a crime scene versus the sensitivity to victims. We tried to be very intentional about calling that debate out.”

The newsroom spent many hours wrestling with which images to publish. Buzbee didn’t cite particular standards — like the “over your cereal” test that asks what’s too upsetting for readers to see as they read their newspaper over breakfast — but instead a balancing act between newsworthiness and what, frankly, was too awful to publish.

“There was a lot of conversation just about the photos themselves — which photos provided important information about the destructiveness of these mass slayings that was not overly sensational or too far or so shocking that people couldn’t see it, right? A lot of that informed our conversation around [asking ourselves], are there ways to show the devastating power of these weapons and the destructiveness — but also, you know, showing a child’s body is a terrible thing to do,” Buzbee said. “We debated those things and made those decisions about what we felt was proper and what was too far.”

When pulling together the photos and videos into a cohesive narrative, Buzbee said, the Post focused on surrounding the graphic material with “an enormous amount of context,” including firsthand accounts from survivors and first responders. Instead of just one warning at the top of the page, there are many places in the scroll that stop and inform readers about upcoming content. Buzbee said the digital format was key to allowing a “very careful presentation” that “allows readers to make choices along the way.” (The Post is not publishing these images in print, and related social media posts will be “carefully curated,” a spokesperson said.)

The Post, at several points during reporting and production, conducted user testing. One of the most valuable pieces of feedback, Buzbee said, was readers saying they wanted more detailed warnings about what the materials showed. Instead of generic “caution — graphic images ahead” labels, the “Terror on Repeat” piece specifies what upcoming photos and videos show.

The Post had many conversations with families and others potentially affected by the images. They held a wide variety of views, Buzbee said, but some did grant the Post permission to use photos where their loved ones were identifiable. (Some have invoked Mamie Till’s decision, in 1955, to allow open casket photos of her teenage son, Emmett Till, to be published in Jet magazine.) After those conversations concluded, though, the Post decided “the potential harm or traumatization to the victims’ families outweighed any potential journalistic value,” Buzbee said.

In the lead-up to publication, The Post gave advance notice to relatives “so they could avoid the coverage if they preferred,” as Buzbee’s note to readers says. In our digital age, however, no outlet can make promises about how an image will be presented or distributed. Material can easily escape the carefully constructed surroundings the Post labored to create.

“We’ve obviously worked incredibly hard to try to ensure that when we present these photos, there’s appropriate context around the images, along with these multiple warnings for our readers. We tried to design the reporting and the presentation with the utmost intentionality to ensure that context in the storytelling,” Buzbee said. “We think that any use of this imagery outside of that careful context is bad and lessens the intended impact.”

And that’s one way to read the Post’s decision to publish these images: they’re doing something different this time to have more of an impact. Photos can shock and sear news events into our collective conscious, but there’s less evidence they galvanize elected officials into action or prompt lasting change. Readers can always look away from what they find distressing or unpleasant to contemplate. The Post is also grappling with the real possibility that, if confronted with photos from the mass shootings again and again, Americans could simply become numb to them.

As Buzbee wrote in her note to readers, news outlets are more comfortable publishing photos of violence occurring overseas. Victims often remain anonymous and generic, indicative of a wider conflict and standing in for many more dead. This week, The New York Times published dueling opinion pieces that alluded to the differing standards when considering whether to publish a heartbreaking image of small children killed in the Hamas-Israel war, a conflict that’s already claimed the lives of more than 4,600 Palestinian children. New York Times Opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury wrote that editors ask themselves a series of questions before publishing graphic images, including, “Would you publish an equivalent photograph if you were closer to the victims or if it was taken in a different location?” Columnist Lydia Polgreen, who argued for the photo’s publication, said the image “demands to be seen.” She concludes: “They could be American schoolchildren gunned down in a mass shooting. These children are ours.”

“For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war,” the author and cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote, more than 20 years ago, on war photography. For a long time some people have believed the same about mass shootings in the United States. I asked Buzbee how she’ll evaluate the decision the Post has made, whether the arguments for publication she articulated ultimately outweighed the potential harms she also clearly saw.

“It’s a great question and we never quite know if we make the right decisions,” she said. “You know that earlier this year, we did this body of journalism [called] The Blast Effect. What really struck me there was the enormous reader response that we got from that. Much of it — the things that really matter to me — was email from people who said, ‘I have never written to a news organization in my whole life and I’m not that interested in journalism, but this work which I stumbled across on social media — or somebody sent to me — was eye-opening. It made me realize things and it provided me new information.’ That is meaningful to us, if we can get factual information that people are not aware of into the public discourse.”

“It’s not our job to say what decisions people should make, but we do feel that where there is meaningful and relevant information and there’s value in the public seeing it,” she added, “that is what journalism strives to do.”

Sally Buzbee’s full letter to readers

In “Terror on repeat,” the latest story in our series examining the role of the AR-15 in American life, The Washington Post is taking the unusual step of publishing photographs and videos taken during the immediate aftermaths of some of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings.

Like other news organizations, we cover the effects of these tragedies when they occur. But because journalists generally do not have access to crime scenes and news organizations rarely if ever publish graphic content, most Americans have no way to understand the full scope of an AR-15’s destructive power or the extent of the trauma inflicted on victims, survivors and first responders when a shooter uses this weapon on people.

Drawing on the details of 11 mass killings from the past 11 years, this story is the result of a months-long effort to examine these episodes as a cumulative and relatively recent phenomenon that has upended communities across the country.

The story is largely narrated by those who experienced the shootings firsthand. It reveals the commonalities shared by each tragedy — the sudden transition from normal life to terror, then the onset of chaos, destruction and death, and, finally, the gruesome aftermath of investigation and cleanup.

Our decision to publish this story came after careful and extensive deliberation among the reporters and editors who worked on it, as well as senior leaders in our newsroom.

The goal was to balance two crucial objectives: to advance the public’s understanding of mass killers’ increasing use of this readily available weapon, which was originally designed for war, while being sensitive to victims’ families and communities directly affected by AR-15 shootings.

While many types of firearms, including other semiautomatic rifles, are used to commit violent crimes, the AR-15 has soared in popularity over the past two decades and is now the gun used more than any other in the country’s deadliest mass shootings.

In the end, we decided that there is public value in illuminating the profound and repeated devastation left by tragedies that are often covered as isolated news events but rarely considered as part of a broader pattern of violence.

We filed more than 30 public records requests in jurisdictions that had investigated AR-15 shootings since 2012, the year that included massacres at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., seeking medical examiner records, crime scene photographs, police body-camera footage and other investigative files. Most of our requests were rejected, with officials citing ongoing investigations or local laws preventing the release of such information. Officials in some communities released documents in response to our requests, including Dayton, Ohio, Aurora and Las Vegas.

Our reporters also gathered court records and other information that had previously been made public, and scoured social media and websites for photos and videos that may have surfaced after AR-15 shootings and that we could authenticate. They interviewed survivors and first responders willing to share their experiences, searched for official transcripts of witness testimony and compiled relevant interviews conducted in the past by Post journalists — amassing firsthand accounts that are crucial to this story.

The Post separately obtained a collection of evidence from the 2022 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., compiled by state and federal police, some of which has not previously been made public. Those files include intensely graphic crime scene photos and videos taken moments after police entered the classrooms where 19 students and two teachers were killed.

Before viewing the graphic content, our reporters and editors participated in training by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, learning best practices for viewing disturbing photos and discussing how publishing them could affect readers.

At the same time, reporters and editors engaged in intensive discussions over the merits of publishing disturbing photographs and videos. We engaged in conversations with advocates, including victims’ families, some of whom see a potential value in publishing content to increase public awareness and others who see such publication as dehumanizing and traumatizing.

Our team grappled with our own standard practices when it comes to publishing graphic content. We seek to be thoughtful about how doing so affects victims of violence and those who care about them, but we also recognize that at times disturbing photos and videos can add to an accurate understanding of events. We also realize that news outlets are often more comfortable publishing pictures of violence overseas, where some of our readers are less likely to have a direct connection.

For this project, we established one ground rule at the start of our reporting: If we sought to publish any pictures of identifiable bodies, we would seek permission from the families of the victims. Some families indicated they would be open to granting permission, but ultimately we decided that the potential harm to victims’ families outweighed any potential journalistic value of showing recognizable bodies. We ultimately included nine photos from the Uvalde files showing scenes inside the classrooms taken shortly after bodies were removed. In addition, we show sealed body bags in the school hallway.

The only photograph in this story showing bodies is one taken immediately after the 2017 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas. We felt the scene captured in this photo — a field strewn with the dead and wounded beneath the Las Vegas skyline — illustrates why witnesses often liken AR-15 shootings to American war zones. The perspective of the photograph, in which the victims are seen from a distance, makes it unlikely that individuals could be identified.

As we prepared to publish this story in recent days, we sought to be sensitive to the people most directly affected — providing advance notice to many families of victims, their representatives and community leaders so they could choose to avoid the coverage if they preferred.

We realize this story will be disturbing to readers, but we believe that publishing these images gives the public a new vantage point into the pattern of AR-15 mass killings in the United States. We hope that readers will share their feedback in the comments section at the end of the story.

Photo of gun violence memorial in Washington, D.C. by Joe Flood used under a Creative Commons license.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Nov. 16, 2023, 11:58 a.m.
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