Distressing Images Secondly, we discussed at length the responsibility news organizations have to protect the audience from violence and trauma. There was a sense that decisions about showing graphic footage are the same now as they’ve always been, but some people we interviewed even believed that social media is pushing boundaries of what it is acceptable to show on television screens. Editors from Reuters discussed how there are “different clusters of broadcasters who have different viewpoints on what they can and cannot run or what their audience wants to see,” with some countries being very conservative and others happily broadcasting pictures that would be shocking to a British audience accustomed to regulation by Ofcom.36television news is governed by regulatory bodies, which have clear guidelines about the types of pictures that can be shown. However, the same regulations don’t exist for online news sites, although many newsrooms have very detailed conversations about what is or is not appropriate to show on the Web. There seems to be evidence that some newsrooms are pushing their own boundaries, acknowledging that sites like YouTube allow audiences to access images that previously would only have been seen by journalists working on picture desks.
The most commonly cited example was the chemical weapons attack in Syria in August of 2013. Many newsrooms believed they had a right to show some of that footage, but acknowledged the need to make it difficult to find. So Channel 4 News, for example, has designed clickable online barriers to reduce the likelihood of children stumbling across graphic images. As its Web editor explained, “That was a sea change [for us] because previously the lawyers at ITN and senior editorial people would just say, ‘No way, you can’t do that, someone will complain.’ Things have shifted because of social media.” Deborah Rayner from CNN agreed: Pictures will be going viral and everybody will be seeing them. The audience expects to look to CNN and see them because they look to you for context when there’s this type of footage. That’s increasingly what people look to the main broadcasters and publishers for; it’s the context. So sometimes [a picture] will be held up for quite some time while senior editorial staff argues about whether it can be used, then how it’s used. So the availability of unexpurgated material on social media does cause us ethical problems. There is a need for more audience research on this topic of broadcasting graphic images in a context when they are often already available online. When British news bulletins broadcast the footage filmed by a passerby after the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the BBC, ITV, and the UK communications regulatory body, Ofcom, received roughly 800 complaints.37discussed, it is unlikely that a traditional news camera would have been able to capture this type of footage: