Publishing Photos of Dead Children Could Backfire

Some journalists argue that sharing crime-scene photos from mass shootings could help spark a successful movement for new gun laws. I’m not so sure.

Illustration of a child's body made up of collage images.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic ; Getty

What can the press do to help stop mass shootings? This question haunts many journalists who struggle through the ritualistic cycle of news coverage that has become all too familiar after a massacre. Publishing photographs showing the grisly sight of slaughtered children is the latest answer from those seeking to move the public and politicians to act.

The former dean of UC Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, Ed Wasserman, argues that media, for reasons of taste and decency, have unthinkingly been “withholding from the public the pictures of the dead,” a practice he thinks should change. The former Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman, now the dean of Temple University’s journalism school, agrees, but adds that this should be done only “with the permission of a surviving parent.”

The reality, based on my experience, is not quite so simple.

There is no question that we can point to photographs that have changed public opinion. Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer whose extraordinary “Napalm Girl” photo helped build support for ending the Vietnam War, recently wrote a powerful piece in The Washington Post, headlined “A Single Photo Can Change the World. I Know Because I Took One That Did.” I believe he’s right.

Children run on a street after being hit with Napalm
Terrified children run after an aerial Napalm attack in Vietnam, June 8, 1972. The image has been a testament to the effects of war but has also drawn controversy over the years. (Nick Ut/AP)

But as someone who has thought deeply about how to cover school shootings since 12 students and a teacher were killed at Columbine High School when I was the editor of Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, I have a different answer.

Before I explain, let me note that I come to my views as someone who did choose to publish a haunting image of a dead student sprawled on the sidewalk outside the school, soda from a can he’d dropped trickling downhill near him, while other students crouched behind a car next to a police officer, his gun aimed at the school. A photo that appeared on front pages beyond Colorado and that we published large and in full color inside our newspaper the morning after the shooting. A photo that I did not seek the permission of the surviving parents to publish. A photo that I felt was essential to telling the terrible story of that day. A photo that we believed, or at least fervently hoped, would help prevent the same horror from ever happening again.

Our staff’s photos of the Columbine tragedy went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. The unforgettable front-page photo of two grieving students we ran the morning after the shooting is on the wall across from me as I write. I feel like I live with that day every day, and especially on mass-shooting days. Maybe one day some editors will have a picture of a dead child even more powerful than the one we published that will finally make a difference.

High school students and police hide behind a car , a deceased boy lays on a footpath
Students and police hide behind a car while Daniel Rohrbough’s body lies on the sidewalk after two students attacked Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.(Rocky Mountain News, Rodolfo Gonzalez; AP)

But in the meantime, it’s important to acknowledge that editors can’t publish photos they don’t have. My experience is that police always attempt to control crime scenes and do their best to keep photographers away. And if the setting of the carnage is outside a building, they try to keep photojournalists out of sight. Photographers can show you only what they can see themselves, unlike reporters, who can re-create scenes based on the testimony of others.

To capture the kinds of images that some would like to see published, photojournalists would need to either be allowed entry to the crime scene—unthinkable for many reasons, in my experience—or arrive on the scene of a shooting before the police. That rarely occurs. It happened only one time I can recall in my 11-year tenure as editor of the Rocky, and we published that stunning photo on the front page as well. It showed the body of a gunman on the floor of an empty, grand hallway at Colorado’s capitol, where he had gone to try to kill the governor.

After the bodies of mass-shooting victims are released to their families, it’s difficult to imagine any parent of a murdered child being in a condition to decide to allow a photograph to be taken and published, what we might call the Emmett Till casket moment, in their time of grief. Even if a parent did agree to such a thing in the moment, journalists would have to weigh the ethics of asking someone to make such a decision. My experience is that parents want the last memory of their child to be in life, not in death.

The mother of the boy I showed dead on a sidewalk was angry at first, understandably so, although later she came to believe that the decision to publish the image had been correct. A long time after Columbine, I did ultimately receive crime-scene photos of the school-library killing floor. They arrived in a brown envelope with no explanation. However, those photos showed the bloody deaths of the perpetrators, not their victims. And I chose never to make them public.

My view is that editors aren’t generally withholding images that might galvanize the public to take action. They just don’t have them, as hard as some might try to obtain them. If they did, I’m sure some would publish them, as I did. But I worry that’s a decision that could backfire badly. I saw how Columbine seemed to break down a barrier for other similarly inclined killers. I worry that making public photos of obliterated children will motivate others to see how much damage they can cause, will normalize unthinkable violence, and will be used in a hateful way, against the families of the dead or as threats to others. Rather, I would look for photographs that won’t make people turn away, that will hold their gaze.

In the meantime, the most important thing journalists can do is focus on factors that will help us as a nation understand what could have been done to stop the bloodshed before it happened, and how we might change as people and as a society to prevent such shootings from occurring.

The fundamental work of journalists when things go terribly wrong is to answer the accountability questions: What did we know and when did we know it? What could have been done and how should we act differently based on what we’ve learned? Of course that includes questioning existing gun laws. But not only gun laws.

If the press shows where an opportunity to stop the violence had been missed, it can help each one of us be a better brother’s keeper. We can learn the value of displaying our loyalty to the common good, rather than turning a blind eye to the harm that someone we have encountered or love could do. But we can do that only if journalists have helped us understand what the signs of possible violence are, the risk factors to take seriously. If people know what to be concerned about, and how best to respond, then they may act differently. They may take steps to prevent the violence.

It can start with seemingly small things. Randy Brown, a Columbine parent at the time of the shooting and a voice of conscience for accountability after the massacre, wrote to me recently about the factors he believes go into someone becoming a school shooter: bullying, humiliation, violence. We can all ask ourselves whether we’ve done enough to stop these things when we’ve seen them. With the help of journalists, we can, as family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, police officers, be more alert to danger signs. We can find the courage to intervene. We can be more loving, caring, and kind.

No, embracing those values won’t have the obvious hammer blow of a powerful photograph, but taken together, by many, they will change the world for the better. And we know that journalism can lay the groundwork for that change.

To do so requires difficult reporting, as does the sometimes heart-wrenching work of photographers. Police, schools, and other institutions don’t like to be held accountable. They often circle the wagons, as they did at Columbine. But if journalists pursue the accountability path relentlessly, rather than looking for a single and sensational solution, they’re more likely to make the world safer for us all.