A Washington Post story that broke an unwritten media rule by publishing viscerally bloody images from the scenes of several mass shootings drew sharply diverging reactions Thursday.
Fred Guttenberg, the father of a 14-year-old girl killed by a high school shooter in Parkland, Florida, five years ago, called the graphic photos “unnecessary” and “traumatic to those of us who have been impacted by gun violence.”
Brett Cross, the uncle and guardian of a 10-year-old boy killed by a gunman who invaded his Uvalde, Texas, elementary school last year, wrote on social media that the images were “disturbing and truly shocking” but that he hoped seeing the true impact of gun violence would stop the public from “turning a blind eye to the reality.”
“I hope it’s a gut punch,” Cross added. “Maybe then will it light the fire up under your a – to demand for better.”
The Post story, “Terror on repeat,” is part of a series of articles examining the use of AR-15 style rifles in America.
The latest article, which published online Thursday and will be in the print newspaper at a later date, included multiple photos and a video of the gory aftermath of 11 notorious shootings over the past 11 years, including those in Uvalde and Parkland as well as Las Vegas, Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut.
For decades, major news outlets have been reluctant to show graphic photos and video – prompting a debate about whether this unspoken ban sanitizes the brutality and devastation of such violence, especially mass shootings.
Publication of such photos is so rare that editors of the Chicago Sun-Times agonized over what to do with the images captured by a correspondent who happened to be on the scene of the mass killing at the Highland Park, Illinois, July Fourth parade last year.
The newspaper ultimately published only one image that showed a gunshot victim – unrecognizable under a blanket but lying in a pool of blood – and placed it behind a screen with a warning to readers who might choose not to click to open it.
Similarly, only one of the photos published Thursday by the Post shows bodies, and they were photographed from such a distance at the site of an outdoor concert in Las Vegas that none are recognizable.
Still, the visuals go far beyond typical news coverage in their raw depictions – the massive pools of blood left behind on classroom floors and city sidewalks after victims were carried away, the screams of concertgoers and schoolchildren as gunfire erupts, the bullet holes left in doors and theater seats. One photo shows the body bags containing slain children lining a hallway of Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School.
The article contains multiple warnings of what readers are about to encounter. Before a video clip recorded at Parkland that captures the sound of gunfire, the text warns, “It is upsetting.”
In a note accompanying the main article, Executive Editor Sally Buzbee wrote that the Post published the photos because “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.”
The article generated thousands of reader comments in the first few hours after publication, with many expressing gratitude for its frank portrayal of the human cost of gun violence.
“Thank you WP for sharing these images,” wrote one reader. “As disturbing as they are, it is important that the general public sees the physical damage these weapons are capable of producing. Reading and hearing about it has not changed public sentiment, perhaps visual images would.”
Whether graphic photos have that effect, though, is unclear.
“The presumption is that there’s a certain quality of shock value that will shake people to their senses,” said Jelani Cobb, a journalist and dean of the journalism school at Columbia University. “[But] actually seeing those images doesn’t tell us much of what we don’t already know.”
Cobb said the news media frequently makes different calculations when it comes to showing images of dead and injured people who are not American. “The people far from us geographically or far from us socially – we’re more likely to show explicit images of their deaths.”
In 2015, many news outlets published photos of a dead Syrian toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to flee to Europe with his family – heartbreaking images that spurred efforts to assist migrants fleeing violence. A similar reaction followed publication of a photo of a father and daughter who drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande in 2019.
The New York Times last week published a partial photo of six Palestinian children killed by an Israeli airstrike, lined up under a white sheet in a morgue in Gaza – while explaining that it had declined to publish the full photo because their families could not be reached for consent.
Yet the calculus has been different when it comes to images of American victims, and particularly dead American children.
In recent years, some victims and families have sought to lift that taboo – hoping to spur an emotional response that might result in legislative change about gun regulation.
On the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School mass killing, current students at the school started a campaign calling on the public to share images of their dead bodies if they are killed by guns.
Jessica Fishman, director of the Message Effects Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, said her research doesn’t support the idea that such photos result in political change.
But she also said her research does not support concerns that graphic photos are too distressing and emotional harmful for the public – or that they trigger “compassion fatigue,” indifference to tragedy.
Meanwhile, as noted in her book “Death Makes the News: How the Media Censor and Display the Dead,” conspiracy theorists who attempt to portray gun massacres as hoaxes often try to bolster their arguments by pointing to the lack of public visual evidence.
After seeing the Post’s photos Thursday, she described them as “euphemistic images of death” – comparable to the images of shattered glass and crime scene tape frequently shown in the mainstream press. “They don’t document the dead body and could actually be used for a story about injury without fatality.”
Still, she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen American children in body bags.”
Jennifer Kho, the Sun-Times executive editor who published the photo of the covered body at the July Fourth parade, said the newspaper received surprisingly little community reaction, other than a few thank-you notes.
She was grateful that her staff was able to take the time to carefully consider the decision to publish and set up a way to warn readers what they were about to encounter. She has no regrets about the outcome.
“I think it’s important to show the reality of these shootings,” she said.
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Laura Wagner contributed to this report.