Periodically electronic journalists must make difficult decisions involving graphic video and sound. Television news managers understand that the visual images always overpower the spoken word. Powerful pictures can help explain stories better or they can distort the truth by blurring the important context of the report.
RTDNA has established guidelines to help with discussion when critical issues involving dramatic content arise. RTDNA's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct states in part that professional electronic journalists should treat all subjects of news coverage with respect and dignity, showing particular compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. The code does not distinguish between a subject that is alive or dead.
When considering whether to air graphic content the following questions may provide insight into whether or not the news organization is serving the public interest and promoting truth-telling:
- What is the journalistic purpose behind broadcasting the graphic content? Does the display of such material clarify and help the audience understand the story better? Is there an issue of great public importance involved such as public policy, community benefit or social significance?
- Is the use of graphic material the only way to tell the story? What are your alternatives?
- If asked to defend the decision to your audience or the stakeholders in the story, such as a family member, how will you justify your decision? Are you prepared to broadcast your rationale to your audience? If not, why?
- When is the story important enough to justify replaying graphic material? How will that material be used as file later? Will there be a time limit after which the material is no longer aired?
- Should you have guidelines or discussions about how to use the graphic material in promos and teases?
- When is a notice to the audience warranted that they are about to see or hear is graphic? How much detail should the warning provide?
- Is your news organization prepared to show uncovered bodies of accident or crime victims? If so, under what circumstances? Does showing a covered body meet the concerns of the RTDNA code outlined above? Is it necessary to show blood on a sidewalk from a crime scene? Is it disrespectful to the victim or the family? Does it help tell the story? Can it add to a perception that an area is violent or unsafe?
- Before making a decision, can you have a discussion of the pros and cons with a diverse group in your organization? Would you be willing to include non-journalists in that discussion since they are more likely to be representative of your audience? Should you also call others who may be able to give you an outsiders point of view perhaps a media ethics expert who can help with discussion points?
- When covering live events that could turn graphic quickly, have you taken sufficient precautions to prevent inappropriate pictures and sound from airing? Is there someone else available to help collaborate on the decision? Have you considered instructing field crews to stay wide on live camera shots?