Deadly Images: A Q&A with Barbie Zelizer, author of About to Die: How News Images Move the Public.

Media criticism.
Jan. 6 2011 1:39 PM

Deadly Images

A Q&A with Barbie Zelizer, author of About To Die: How News Images Move the Public.

Barbie Zelizer. Click image to expand.
Barbie Zelizer

The camera's eye brings to journalism a cornucopia of images: Grip-and-grins, parades, head shots, coronations, sporting matches, political protests, and unleashed dogs running in the park. But ever since photographs started elbowing their way into newspapers more than a century ago, a different kind of picture, one that did not illustrate a story but is the story, has become a distinct subgenre of photojournalism—the deadly image.

The emergence and cultural meaning photographs of the dead, the dying, and the potentially doomed published in the press and on the airwaves is the subject of Barbie Zelizer's densely packed, enlightening new book, About To Die: How News Images Move the Public.

Zelizer, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, charts the course of deadly images in media history to explain our tortured, often duplicitous relationship with scenes of death, assassination, execution, suicide, gore, mutilation, and doom.

The interview was conducted via e-mail over the last weeks of 2010 and the first week of 2011.

Where did the modern taboos against depictions of the dead, the dying, and the potentially doomed come from? Fine art is filled with such images, some of them documentary in nature. Yet controversy greets every publication or broadcast of these pictures and videos. Why?

U.S. journalism has long been responsible for showing pictures of the dead and dying, but it's less comfortable doing so today than perhaps at any other time in its history. The taboo around death images, by which journalists could talk death in the news but not show it, was spawned by multiple developments: Changes in the larger political climate, an improved technology that made graphic images more attainable, heightened public sensitivity to the coverage of certain news topics, and changing conventions about how much human gore journalists could show and people would be willing to see all made journalism's discomfort with pictures of the dead and dying an integral part of contemporary journalism.

Genesee Hotel suicide. Click image to expand.
"Genesee Hotel Suicide," Buffalo Courier Express, May 7, 1942

Reticence over pictures of the dead and dying wasn't always the case in journalism. During the early 20th century, when photography was a new technology inching its way into journalism, there was a collective eagerness to show the graphic images of death that validated the professionalization of news photographers and the immediacy of the news they provided.

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But from the middle of the 20th century onward, that uniform excitement was progressively offset by other priorities and expectations. Still photos were no longer thought to offer the same kind of cutting-edge documentation, faster film and lenses intensified the graphic character of death images, wartime and political censorship became more of a prominent means of controlling images of death, and conventions about showing and viewing death were increasingly driven by a public sentiment that death in the news should remain unseen and non-graphic. Not only did this diminish much of the earlier celebration of journalism's death images, but it gave way to a more varied and vocal response among all sorts of viewers about what kinds of images the news should show. As graphic images of death and dying were more and more thought to offend standards of decency, propriety and tastefulness, debates over those standards intensified, most markedly in the contemporary digital environment, where the locus for evaluating images—and often for determining which images to show—no longer rests only with journalists.

This discomfort with showing and seeing journalism's pictures of the dead is odd for two reasons: If we are willing to show and see so many graphic images of death in art, cinema, television, and the Internet, why are we not willing to show and see them in journalism? And if we are willing to watch, read and listen to news stories about death, why are we not willing to see those same deaths in pictures?

So what's the answer? Why are we so squeamish?

We're squeamish because news pictures of the dead and dying are of real people and real events. If a news image works, it penetrates, lingers, forces our attention to the events involving death that it depicts. If a news image works, it doesn't disappear when we cast aside the newspaper, dim the TV or turn off the Internet. That may be more intrusion than most people are willing to allow.

World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Click image to expand.
World Trade Center towers

We're also squeamish because showing a picture of someone dead or dying represents an invasion of privacy. As the news media have become more ubiquitous and the channels for news relay more immediate, the ethical obligation to respect individual privacy becomes harder to uphold. Concerns about voyeurism, regard for individual privacy, and respect for the dead all drive the reticence about showing images of death and dying.