War is about suffering and death. But should those images be portrayed in the news?

The coffin of senior police sergeant Roman Rushchyshyn is lowered during his funeral in the village of Soposhyn, outskirts of Lviv, western Ukraine in Lviv. Rushchyshyn, a member of the Lviv Special Police Patrol Battalion, was killed in the Luhansk Region. Temporary cease-fires to allow evacuations and humanitarian aid have repeatedly faltered, with Ukraine accusing Russia of continuing its bombardments. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

More than seven years after Jody Santos’ documentary film, “No One Left Behind,” premiered, the decision to publish certain graphic images still weighs on her to this day.

“It was quite graphic,” she says of her film, which explored the conditions of disabled children who were institutionalized in developing countries. “Looking back on that, I still do wonder if that—showing those children like that—really accomplished anything.”

The documentary depicted children tethered to wheelchairs, and infants with hydrocephalus—a condition in which fluid builds up in the different cavities of the brain, causing the head to become enlarged. Thinking back on “No One Left Behind,” what stands out to Santos, a visiting assistant teaching professor of journalism at Northeastern, are precisely those editorial decisions to show the children’s suffering in an unvarnished manner—and the fact that she and her colleagues had done so without consent or permission because, she says, there was no one to give it on behalf of the children.

Portraits of Professor of Philosophy and Business, Law and Public Policy Patricia Illingworth; and Visiting Assistant Teaching Professor Jody Santos. Courtesy Photos

“That got me thinking a lot about how do you move the needle on these issues,” she says, “because when you deploy some of these images that evoke pity, there can be an othering that happens.”

The question of how to ethically and humanely document the world’s suffering is perennial, and almost always challenging. It prompts conversations in newsrooms and among journalists of all media about how to portray violence, illness, and death without exploiting victims and needlessly traumatizing audiences and bystanders. Newsrooms are again facing these hard editorial decisions amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and its accompanying humanitarian crisis.

Case in point: A Russian missile struck a civilian neighborhood in Ukraine over the weekend, killing a family of three. The New York Times ran a photo, taken by a photojournalist on the ground, of the lifeless bodies of Tetiana Perebyinis, 43, her son Mykyta, 18, and daughter Alisa, 9, all of whom were killed in the attack. The three Ukrainians were seen slumped over on the edge of a curb, their suitcases and backpacks strewn on the concrete and surrounding debris. The family was trying to leave Kyiv with other civilians, and were crossing a damaged bridge the moment of the strike.

“There’s always a question of, ‘Do people need to see it,’” says Joanne Ciccarello, who teaches photojournalism at Northeastern, “and I think that question is tied to whether or not it helps us better understand what is happening in Ukraine.”

Images of death and destruction are part of the package in reporting on war, even when met with horror, shock, and (sometimes) outrage by readers. But the visual representations speak to audiences in ways that words fail to, Ciccarellos says.

“We take in photographic information in such a different way that it cuts to our emotions, our empathy and compassion, and our horror,” she says.

Although there is no official guidebook, the general protocol newsrooms follow in publishing graphic material is to ensure that they’ve obtained consent from the parties directly affected by publication, or—for content involving deceased subjects—have waited until next-of-kin have been notified, Santos says.

But those procedures can run up against the pressures to publish timely news information—and in the case of military conflict, material that could be evidence of war crimes, Santos says.

Santos says she’s not sure she agrees with the Times’ decision to publish the photo. The reporter justified its publication by saying, on MSNBC, that she believed the mortar attack amounted to a war crime, adding: “We can’t censor war; we can’t sanitize war.”

But the reporter, Lynsey Addario, a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist for the Times, also touched on the sensitivities of potentially publishing such an image. “There was the whole task of discussing with my editors, ‘Could we actually publish a photo like this?’” she said.

Journalistic history is filled with iconic photos that have come to represent and capture a particular moment in time. On the morning of the September 11 attacks in New York, Associated Press photographer Richard Drew snapped one the most iconic images in recent history in the “Falling Man,” which depicted a person midair, falling to his death from the Twin Towers. Many thought the photo, printed on the front page of newspapers across the U.S., too shocking. Others have lauded it as a masterpiece of photojournalism, one marked by accident, circumstance, and precision.

Santos says she feels there’s a lack of conversation around these editorial dilemmas, which are so fraught with nuance. Without the proper care, journalists risk deepening the trauma by failing to consider that what they publish can cause real harm, she says.

The increasing use of “content” or “trigger” warnings has provided news outlets with a mechanism for alerting their audiences about potentially sensitive or graphic material. That heads-up is an important part of the process, says Patricia Illingworth, a Northeastern professor of philosophy and business, who is also an ethicist.

“It is critical that those who view such photographs know prior to viewing them that the images may cause emotional and moral anxiety,” Illingworth says. “And when possible, they should be given a choice about whether to look at them.”

But, from an ethical perspective, as painful as such photos are, Illingworth says they serve as a call to action, adding it is important to consider the value publicizing them has on “humanitarian aid, transparency and protecting human rights.”

“Photographs, such as [The New York Times’ photo], are a vivid and frightening depiction of human suffering, but they also signal the need for our help,” she says. 

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