Eye on the News

Nicole Gelinas
Freedom, Privacy, and Boston
Thanks to social media, strangers can obliviously abuse not only the living but also the dead.
26 April 2013

Much has been made, since the Boston Marathon bombings, of how social media have transformed policing and counterterror techniques. A less-remarked aspect of social networks is the way they have changed how individuals respond to disasters, whether man-made or natural. In particular, some who think nothing of snapping and instantly posting photos of themselves around the clock also have no compunction about snapping and instantly posting photos of the view outside their office windows or across the street during an attack or disaster. What they’re viewing and enabling others to view may be not only gruesome but also intensely personal—images of people gravely wounded or dying. Do people have the right to endure their suffering in private?

A decade ago, this problem didn’t exist. On September 11, digital cameras were still new, and uploading photos was cumbersome. Today, of course, everybody has a digital camera embedded in his phone, and it takes just seconds to send pictures around the world. Minutes after the Boston bombing, before cable news and newspapers had begun reporting it and before emergency responders had “cleared the scene,” as the euphemism goes, social-media users were already redistributing graphic photos of blood-soaked sidewalks still populated by victims with horrific injuries.

The instant dissemination of horror is a very different thing from a newspaper’s publication of photos or a TV station’s transmission of traditional “live” footage. After 9/11, American newspaper and TV editors exercised restraint in their use of images. Yes, papers did publish the now-iconic photos of the dead or dying Mychal Judge, and they did run photos of escaping office workers covered in dust. But there’s a real difference between those photos and what we can see today. Judge was physically intact and clothed, and he didn’t look as though he was suffering. The people running away from the towers, even if they had superficial physical injuries, had obviously made it out and didn’t appear to be in danger of losing life or limb. On the rare occasions today when an American paper shows a 9/11 photo of someone falling from a tower (like the Falling Man) or waving out the window, the victim can’t be identified. In the days after 9/11, newspaper and television editors had plenty of opportunities to publish images of dismembered limbs and fallen bodies, but they largely refrained.

All of this points up the importance of photo editors and their long-established conventions. After a car wreck, for example, it’s okay for a newspaper to run a photo of a deceased victim’s bloody shoes, but not of the mangled victim himself. Likewise, after a shooting, it’s okay to run a photo of a body covered by a tarp, but not of an exposed corpse—and most certainly not of the corpse’s face (though exceptions can apply for mobsters as well as dictators and their relatives). As for living victims: it’s acceptable to run a picture of someone in physical or emotional pain, say, a person with a gash on his face who is crying—as long as that person survived and doesn’t have ghastly visible wounds.

The photo that lots of newspapers ran on their front pages the day after the bombings is a specimen of what’s been acceptable since the days of Weegee. One woman sits dazed and covered in debris, perhaps with cuts and scratches, but evidently not severely injured. Another victim has injuries that have at least knocked her down, but she is alive and awake (she’s raising her own arm to her face) and receiving comfort from another person. Blood and shoes are visible, but they don’t belong to anyone in the photo. (Indeed, editors were so intent on keeping gore from the front page that at least one paper broke another ethical rule in this case, altering the picture to disguise the second victim’s graphic leg injury.)

But social media are moving the boundary. Hours before newspapers went to press, everyone had already seen the photo of Jeff Bauman, the young man who survived the bombing but lost both of his legs above the knee. Newspapers generally went with the cropped, conventional version. We see Bauman’s face and upper body, but little to nothing below the thigh. Yet people voracious for news on Twitter or Reddit could see more lurid versions of this photo.

There’s a real question here: does Bauman have the right not to be seen by the entire world moments after he’s just lost his limbs, and before he’s received even informal medical attention from civilian rescuers? Does he have the right not to stumble accidentally upon these photos on the Internet one day and know that everyone else has seen them, too? And did Bauman’s father have the right to learn of his son’s life-changing ordeal in a controlled environment—at the hospital, surrounded by doctors, perhaps—rather than via Facebook, as he did?

And what about the rights of the dying or dead? Full photos of at least one of the mortally injured victims of last Monday’s attack—both before and after death—were just a click away last week to visitors of huge social-media sites. Reddit, for example, took much criticism for “crowdsourcing” an online investigation into the whodunit, fingering many innocent people, including a missing Brown student (since found dead), in the process. But if the relatives of a missing young man deserve some sensitivity and empathy—rather than having social-media sleuths call them on their cellphones in the middle of the night to inform them that their vanished family member looks like a terrorist—doesn’t the family of a murdered victim have the right to know that people aren’t looking at their dead or dying relative via Google? (Reddit has now hidden many of the direct links to the most offending pictures.)

Thanks to digital cameras, moreover, we can now see a photo of eight-year-old Martin Richard just moments before he was mortally wounded, standing with his parents (one to be grievously injured) and sister (also grievously injured) and happily watching the parade. “Mainstream media” have run this photo, in part because it’s not graphic and because one of the bombers is standing behind the family. But it likely will be painful for Martin’s family members, teachers, and friends to see that picture for years to come.

The rest of us suffer as well, though less severely. Future attackers have yet another incentive to maximize future carnage: they know that amateurs will distribute their handiwork around the world, unedited, within minutes. There’s also the risk that we become desensitized to suffering and death. Parents, in particular, should be concerned. Just because they don’t see the worst of the worst—or at least not until “mainstream media,” for competitive reasons, inevitably loosen their standards further—doesn’t mean their young children won’t stumble upon it. There’s more to worry about online than live, nude girls.

It’s hard to know what to do about this lack of respect for human life (and death). Yes, people have freedom of expression. Does that right imply, though, that we must give up the privacy of our dying moments if we have the misfortune to die in public?

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