Documenting Tragedy in Boston and the Ethical Implications

When it comes to viewing or posting graphic, violent images or tragic events, Americans are like moths to a flame. This is evident in the news coverage, social media posts or evening news broadcasts. Instead of asking why or question is this newsworthy or even is it ethical to post, film or record such things, there’s that pull or drive for more. A prime example of this interest is in police chases. “On average, Los Angeles has 1,000 car chases a year, and when there’s a chase, there’s a good chance it will be on TV. Stations treat hot pursuits as breaking news, and when they go live with police chases, they often see their ratings double” (ABC News).

“Televised chases became a phenomenon seven years ago when 90 million viewers tuned in to watch O.J. Simpson in the now infamous white Ford Bronco. Helped by the development of special helicopter cameras, stations have been covering chases regularly ever since (ABC News).

According to a BBC News article, “It’s a cultural phenomenon. We can’t take our eyes of this immoral behavior. We all know the outcome – he’s going to get caught. The odds are a million to one. And yet still, everyone gathers round the TV. We want to see the finale… the coup de grace.”

News organizations are funded by ratings, and with more than 90 million people tuning in to watch a car chase of a celebrity, ethical considerations seem to go by the wayside. There’s a quote from the BBC article I mentioned above that really stood out to me and I think it speaks to this thirst for more or the thrill of scene in American culture:

“This has been with us in America since the Wild West. A guy robs the bank and runs away on his horse. So the sheriff gets on his horse and pursues him. That’s the way it’s always been.” (Why America loves a police car chase)

But is it a cultural thing, or have we let our technology shape us and our interest? There’s got to be a correlation to graphic images being posted, like the ones for the Boston Bombing, to the number of smart phones in peoples’ hands. In a recent article, 94 percent of millennials surveyed own a smartphone (How Millennials Get News), and each one of those has a camera and video recorder – turning just about anyone into a citizen journalist.

What makes me sad about this fact is this question, are people more like to film or take photos or actually help? Yes, the images are tragic and shocking, but what type of person stands back to pull out their phone and record verses helping those in need? I’d like to focus on that question first before questioning the ethical implications of showing victims.

Take this example of someone filming comedian’s Tracy Morgan’s tour bus accident. Instead of stopping to help, they are filming. Not only that – they’ve sold it / given it to TMZ to use and exploit. Not only that – how is an overturned car news?

I cited this in my lecture reaction, but I think it matters here too. Think about what was shared last week with the class and how “the average person checks social media / Facebook 14 times a day while at work.” The platform and interest are clearly set – social media. With the average Millennial getting 74 percent of their news from online sources” (How Millennials Get News) the audience is there too. Now who can provide the content? Just about anyone…

In terms of the ethical implications of photos and images that arose from the Boston Bombings, a couple questions come into my mind – privacy and newsworthiness.

I struggle with the privacy question. By taking a photo of a bombing victim are you violating their privacy? I don’t think you violate their privacy. You have a heavily media-saturated event, so broadcast and videos are onsite, you have a heavily populated event (and remember 94 percent should have a smartphone) and on a public street, if someone was to take a photo, are their privacy implications? Do you have to have their permission, I don’t think so. Moral implications – yes?

So why would someone take a photo of a stranger? Why would you post something so graphic and if it got picked up by someone’s family and friends, yours would be the first image or perhaps the last image they saw of that loved one? Not only this, but as we all know – the internet is forever and now so is that picture. I’m thinking of the post-traumatic stress syndrome and how by posting this graphic image online, that victim may have to deal with that image for the rest of their lives.

“A 2013 survey from the University of Southern California’s Center for the Digital Future shows that Millennials are more willing than any other generation to post personal information online — especially if they get something out of it” (USA Today). While the study is more focused on how millennials share information with companies, I think it’s worth mentioning because it’s this hyper-connectivity that breeds this need to post updates an connect to online communities/ social media sites.

When it comes to photos of children, I do feel there should be some parental consent form. But I don’t know how you would enforce this in public spaces. Perhaps there’s a mechanism in Facebook that could do reverse facial recognition. We all get the tag this person or Facebook’s facial recognition program picks out the individual, but could the same concept be applied to the idea of blurring the faces of people who have not given consent?

The other question I brought up on the ethical implications of posting photos of victims is the newsworthiness of the images. Going back to our week 7 learnings on accuracy, “Our media ecology is a chaotic landscape evolving at a furious pace.  Professional journalists share the journalistic sphere with tweeters, bloggers, citizen journalists, and social media users” Digital Media Ethics, Center for Journalism Ethics.

How do we go from an image like this link, taken in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive of a police officer executing a Viet Cong officer to the an image of a Boston bombing victim? Is it the fact that one was taken during war? Or when it was a professional photographer and news organization? What makes one image acceptable and another ethically questionable? Perhaps it’s the pre and post event view? Or the aftermath?

I found another example of a photojournalist debating this very issue of ethical implications when he took a photo of dying 5-year old child and thought it was a really good read. One particular section stood out to me:

Life is brutal. Life is harsh. And photojournalists have to bear witness to this, for better or for worse. And sometimes you have to make a choice of how to soften the impact of a bad situation to make it appropriate for publication. I photographed the EMT’s and the girl from the right side, because when I first approached the scene, the entire left side of her body was battered and crushed, and frankly it was grisly and would have been completely inappropriate and truly hurtful to her family and friends. I had that photograph. It was deleted immediately after I processed my take.

For those of you who view me as ‘inhumane’ and a ‘vulture’: Do you want to know what it’s like to make eye contact with a dying child as you photograph her being carried to an ambulance on a stretcher, and see the life within her eyes slowly fading to darkness? Can you hear the wailing of her badly injured mother, who knew that her daughter was dying as she lay there, unable to even say goodbye to her precious child and kiss her one final time? Do you know what it’s like to watch another human being slipping into the otherworld, and not be able to do a damn thing about it?

But I stand unwaveringly by my decision to make this image. It is an uncomfortable image. It is a painful image. It hurts me to look at it. But damn it, it’s important. This little girl’s life was important. SHE MATTERED. And the human element is the essence of photojournalism; photojournalism would cease to have any meaning or impact without people in it (Gawker)

This whole situation almost feels like a fight or flight reflex – what type of person would you be – would be someone who documents (fight mechanism in my mind) or would render aid (flight in my opinion)?

I know it is cliché, but a picture is worth a thousand words. Could the written word have captured the horror and tragedy like those images and photos? It puts a face with the story. It humanizes it and it can rally a country.


  • In your opinion, what causes someone to post these types of graphic images? Is it a specific component to our society? Is it an American trait? Or is it how ubiquitous social media and mobile devices are?
  • What are your thoughts on the scenario I mentioned in my reaction? You have a heavily media-saturated event, so broadcast and videos are onsite, you have a heavily populated event (and remember 94 percent should have a smartphone) and on a public street, if someone was to take a photo, are their privacy implications? By taking a photo of a bombing victim are you violating their privacy?  
  • What makes a photo of a Boston bombing victim newsworthy?

About Frank Clouser

I'm currently the Senior Corporate Relations Manager for Allstate Insurance's Northwest Region. I lead the regional corporate relations department responsible for reputation management, strategic communications, media relations, issues management, community relations and employee communications in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska and Hawaii. I manage integrated communications that drive outcomes aimed at increasing engagement, strengthen brand reputation and increase consumer consideration of Allstate. I also proactively manage emerging and existing issues that may have an impact on overall business performance and Allstate's reputation. Provide strategic counsel to Field Senior Vice President and regional partners as a member of the region's senior leadership team.

2 responses to “Documenting Tragedy in Boston and the Ethical Implications”

  1. Nhi Hoang says :

    Hi Frank,

    Thank you for an incredibly powerful post. You brought up some incredible examples of incidents where we’re much more focused on taking picture or video than jumping in to help. Perhaps one of the most interesting examples we’ve encountered in the past few years is the story of the man who was trying to get himself out of harm’s way of a train in New York City for a whole minute. About 18 people, including a photographer, chose to watch the incident instead of help the man. That, to me, is incredible. ( As someone who’s lived in NYC I find that residents are almost too focused on their own lives to stop and worry about others.

    So yes, you’re right. Lives matter, no matter who you are and where you are. And it’s become very commonplace for us to forget that. I tend to side with journalists. These images are necessary. They put us in the journalist’s shoes, and it forces us to face the tragedy. We can’t avoid suffering and war and death, and we must not forget that people perish every day all over the world due to unjust causes. If just one person picks up a cause because of a photo, isn’t it all worth it?


    • Frank Clouser says :

      Nhi, thank you for your kind words and your comments. I just found it amazing that there are people out there who would record an event verses help. I wonder, if someone doesn’t help could they be held liable? Yes, I’m thinking of the Seinfeld episode, but could someone go after an individual who stands there filming verses saving them from bodily harm. It’s easy to tie the benefit of recording or capturing the moment for news organizations. They are driven by ratings and should be providing the providing a fair and balanced view of a situation. However, what does an every day person get for posting an image or video. Are we driven by Facebook ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’? Facebook & Twitter have been around for about 10 years, we’re still discovering the impact they have on society and what their full potential can be. Are we limiting this potential by using it for our own self promotion or self glorification?

      I loved the example you shared. Let me rephrase, your example was exactly what I was trying to describe in my reaction blog. I am horrified that as a society, we’d record and watch someone perish or have bodily harm, then to go to their aid. I guess it makes sense though – we’re in a society of instant gratification, and if i’m not recording my own “awesomeness” of saving someone, how is anyone going to like it? How can I show someone what I did?

      I definitely think it’s worth the cause. I relate it back to undercover journalists who are breaking a story and trying help society. If you can put a name to it, a face to it, and it can help rally a cause – it is definitely worth it.

      I guess the other angle is – why is this even news. For anyone who shares what you had for breakfast or how you’re feeling. I’m not sure society needs to know. It’s a classic golden rule, do unto others as you have done unto them… hope they get your good side.


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