Comparing Graphic Coverage

CASE STUDY: The Madrid Bombings, 11 March 2004

On March 11, 2004, a coordinated series of 10 explosions on four commuter trains coming into Madrid, Spain during the morning rush hour killed 190 people and injured over 1,800. The Spanish government first charged the Basque separatist group ETA with the attacks, but later Al Qaeda claimed responsibility. On March 14, Spain's Socialist Party won an upset in the country's general election—voters turned on the government' in part for its handling of terrorism.

A photograph taken by Pablo Torres Guerrero of El Pais the morning of the bombing appeared on front pages around the world. El Pais, Madrid’s hometown paper, ran it as-is, huge, across the entire front page. (see below)

But editors elsewhere struggled with what to do about a bloody severed arm visible on the train tracks in the image (circled in red in the photo on the left).

In London, the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Sun and the Daily Mail airbrushed the body part out, replacing it with stones. The Guardian (see below) changed its color from red to grey, making it almost impossible to identify. The Independent and the Daily Mirror, got around the problem by printing the image in black and white. “For most of us,” noted The Guardian, “the true awfulness of these scenes were edited out, deemed unfit to view.”

The Digital Journalist, the premiere online magazine for photographers, was appalled by the manipulation of Guerrero’s image. An editorial in its April edition said:

“Newspapers are supposed to present the news in an honest context. This was a news photograph. It was not a photographic illustration. If the newspapers felt that the photograph might cause readers distress, they had the option of using another one. This is a massive breach of journalistic ethics. You may not ‘clean up’ a news photograph to suit your audience…. If these newspapers are serious about credibility the editors who authorized this manipulation should be fired on the spot.”

The News Photographer, the publication of the American National Press Photographers Association, also wrote an editorial about the manipulation of Guerrero’s photograph:

“An image must establish the truth and context of a newsworthy moment. An altered image is a lie. We believe that the public is ill served when elements within the frame are reduced or removed in an attempt to soften the horror of the moment. If one unaltered image is too graphic for public consumption, find another. One must not alter a graphic image in an attempt to protect public sensibilities. Removing a bloody body part from a photograph sends the public an untrue and unfortunate message. Removing a victim's remains from a photograph sends the message that someone who died is anonymous. Removing a person's blood-soaked limb from a photograph tells the public that someone who died is invisible. The victims of terrorism must never be anonymous. The victims of terrorism must never be invisible."

Other papers debated over running other photos. Different papers from different countries made different choices.

A very few felt the image that included the severed arm did not speak as powerfully to the terror of the event as a photograph of a dead woman, lying face up in the unrecognizable debris of a train car. (see left)

Others chose to focus on the survivors, and showed their readers images of young and clearly injured victims. (see below)

Other papers felt the scale of the attack was what mattered and they tried to emphasize the number of those killed by showing the mass of body bags lined up in a long row. (see above)

Still others were uncomfortable with focusing on either the survivors or the dead and instead highlighted the damage to the trains.

As these front pages demonstrate, editors from around the world made different choices about which photographs to run. Opinions differed about what to tell and show the public—and even about what was ethical to show. What one news outlet believed was appropriate or sufficient differed from what another believed was appropriate or sufficient.

Much of what the media cover in the news is violence and trauma—both the daily, pedestrian-level violence that rumbles constantly as well as the extreme brutality that can erupt, engulfing its victims, and at times entire nations and regions. Stories of awful pain and sadness need not only to be told but have to be seen and heard. Holding one’s hands over one’s ears and singing “La, La, La,” when learning of a diagnosis of cancer is not ultimately the best approach. It is far better to hear the diagnosis of the doctor and find out what she will prescribe for the best quality of life going forward.

Graphic coverage of violence needs to be tempered with thoughtful explorations of ways the public can manage their fears.

As the Madrid bombing shows, outlets struggle with how to tell these stories. How should they balance what their audiences can bear with what their audience needs to be told?