Journalists Dealing with 'Horror Pictures'

02 October 2014


Did you click play on the video of James Foley's beheading? If you work in the media business, especially on social media and user-generated content, you come accross this kind of graphic images rather frequently if you cover international topics — images of Syria, Iraq and other conflicted areas. Media organisations are now calling them 'horror images' because of their violence and the trauma they can induce. We had a talk with Fergus BellSocial Media and UGC Editor at Associated Press, and asked him about how AP's journalists deal with those images on a daily basis.

How do journalists cope with ‘horror pictures’?

If you are a journalist monitoring this all day, every day, sitting at your desk with headphones on, you must not underestimate the impact it might have on you. Some say that if you are in the field, you've got adrenaline, and it helps you to deal with it. If you're sitting at your computer and you unexpectedly come across graphic imagery, you don't have that level of adrenaline. It can be particularly distressing. The way the Associated Press deals with that is make sure that people are not exposed to that content for too long, that they are able to feel safe and completely comfortable requesting to take a break. We are also making sure that we are keeping an eye on people, and we are rotating them, in order not to expose one individual to too much content. One of the signs that people are being affected is almost an addiction to viewing this kind of content. They don't want to let go, they want to keep on looking. We take action on it. We have support in place for anyone who thinks they are being affected, we work with the Dart Center [a project dedicated to informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy] on the latest guidance in that area.

Fergus 1

As a journalist, do you have to watch everything?

On breaking news, I do have to watch all of the videos to be able to do my job properly, however for long running stories like the conflict in Syria I am now selective about what I view. Through experience I can often tell what would be too gratuitous for us to be able to use through the captions and thumbnails. If I do happen across something that suddenly becomes graphic then I view the video by watching key frames to be able to identify what is happening without subjecting myself to the moving images. Sometimes though you do need to watch a particularly horrible video all the way through as it can be important editorially. I just try to preserve my tolerance to this by being selective when I can.

What is the feedback from other journalists exposed to those images?

I regularly talk to counterparts in other organisations at conferences, we use the opportunity to catch up on issues like this. I run a UGC ethics working group: this is one of the key focuses of the group, making sure that people in newsrooms from entry-level to senior manager are aware of the issues, that we are all aware of the latest guidance. It is not a competitive issue, it is an issue that affects the industry, we are making sure that everyone is up to speed with the latest information. We are also able to discuss personal experience and case studies in a private space. We can help each other.

What differences do you see between countries in the way they are treating ‘horror pictures’?

There is absolutely a difference: it clearly depends on the audience. We see that for all kinds of content: in the Western countries, there is a lower tolerance for gratuitous images than Asia and the Middle-East. The audience are more used to it. It depends on the standards of the news organisation and what they individually decide. It is not our place to choose how our customers use the content. We make a decision as to what we will access, and then it is up to them.

Fergus 2

So what is the process at AP?

As soon as we are aware of the content and specifically the execution videos, we will escalate that to the highest levels here: Sandy McIntyre, head of video, and Tom Kent, Standards Editor, are two people that are always involved in that decision. On the route to that decision, the content is shared with select few people who need to be able to weigh in. In terms of decision whether to use it, it really depends on the context of the situation: we never use more than we absolutely need to in order to illustrate the story and we also consider the implications for relatives, and whether we are giving a platform to the people creating this. All of those things are taken into consideration.

Should journalist consider them as propaganda and not publish them?

It is an age old question for newsroom: I don't think the issue or the approach has changed. What has changed is that the audience can access that kind of content on their own, they can get it direct from the source. Sometimes it doesn't matter what a news organisation does because that content is out there for the audience to find, if they really want to.

I am on social media all the time, and I see things all the time: there is too much for an audience. It is too much because it is presented for an audience on a platform like Twitter, where the audience does not have an opportunity to look away just because of the nature of Twitter: it falls into their feed, it not necessarily something that they are searching for. In situations like that, where people don't have a choice about their exposure to it, it can be too much.

Photos: Google Maps

The Global Editors Network decided not to publish or link to examples of 'horror images'.

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