Ethical Implications of Graphic Images in Social Media

On April 15, 2013, bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon resulting in three casualties and more than 260 cases of injury.  What ensued was a digital explosion of information and photos across social media.  Some of the graphic images published have raised some serious questions about the ethical implications of using such content in the media, especially via digital channels.

One obvious ethical issue with this action is the lack of respect for the privacy of victims whose faces and traumatic moments are spread around the internet.  What if these individuals do not wish for others to gawk at their suffering and vulnerability?  What if they don’t want photographic evidence of their medical conditions made public knowledge?  What if their families learn of the tragedy through social media at the same time as everyone else, rather than in advanced privacy from a more humane and compassionate source?  Releasing graphic images in the media clearly infringes on the privacy rights of others.

This sort of publication not only seems disrespectful, but some may also consider it to be opportunistic.  Marketers and communications professionals understand the psychology behind human nature and what compels us to share information with others.  Graphic images evoke strong emotions and shock, and therefore are likely to increase impulsive sharing on social media.  Exploiting this coupling of knowledge and visual content for the advancement of a news organization’s social capital and brand awareness is in poor taste.

Distributing detailed images containing violence, gore, the wounded, and death is an irresponsible act.  Traditionally, such as on TV news broadcasts, advanced notice is given before such visuals are displayed on the screen.  This gives individuals a moment to prepare themselves, send their children from the room, or to even turn the channel.  However, this option is not available on social media.  A mother and her 8-year-old daughter may be scrolling through a Facebook newsfeed smiling at family photos of cousins in the swimming pool, candid cat pictures, and funny jokes when an unexpected and horrifying image rises above the scroll.  What happens at this moment?  Did these individuals give consent, or express desire, to be exposed to this content?  At this moment, the damage has been done. What might be the short and longterm psychological effects to people, especially children, in this situation?  In entertainment media, audience ratings exist to gauge the level of appropriateness of content for a given age group.  Thus far, this sort of warning does not exist on social media.  Perhaps that is something to work towards for the future…

Aside from the potential psychological impact on individuals who experience something similar to the above scenario, there are also possible societal implications of publishing graphic images on digital media.  For example, what would happen if this behavior continues unregulated? Would it increase in frequency and perhaps even in degree of offensiveness?  If this happens, what might this do the our society’s perspective on violence? Would it become more accepted as part of daily life due to frequent exposure from prolific social media sharing?  Could mass desensitization result?  Could these images even incite an increase in violence?

On the other end of the spectrum, yet still consistent with Gerbner and Gross’s Cultivation Theory in mass communication, could this repeated exposure instead lead to an increase in those who suffer from the Mean World Syndrome?  Might it evoke unhealthy feelings of fear?  Although these longterm implications are yet unknown, media effects research in traditional media indicates these as possible consequences of violence in the media, and these findings may also be applicable to social media.  Therefore, digital media outlets have an ethical and social responsibility to consider these possible outcomes and then to evaluate how to most effectively, and ethically, present news to their audiences.


  1. says

    Hi Angela! You make some really great points that I definitely agree with. Very similar to you mentioning a mother and daughter scrolling through a newsfeed looking at family photos, I did a quick Google search simply for the word “Boston.” I was fairly shocked at the results. While a search for most cities will give you beautiful, professional images of a city, especially the tourist areas, Boston gives you some pretty graphic, bloody images from that tragic day. I think of kids doing a school project about a city they would like to visit. They do a simple search on Google and a few of the pictures are quite grotesque due to the horrific amount of blood and close up images of injuries. I understand these images tell a story and are now a piece of history, but how do we go about preserving history and acknowledging that those shown in these graphic images are people, too? There will never be a solid answer to this debate on the ethical implications of graphic images in the media, but I feel like we’re getting worse rather than better. We’re moving in the wrong direction and I think the spiral initiated with 9/11 when some news outlets and photographers felt it was appropriate to show us the horrifying images of people jumping from the buildings. I agree with you that looking towards the future, social media should move in the direction of some sort of filter. I don’t know how that would work yet, but I feel it is necessary to figure it out.

    • says

      Thanks for your thoughtful post. As an educator and parent, you pulled at my heartstrings and made a very personal connection with your example of students researching Boston. You bring to light a very interesting aspect of this ethical debate that I hadn’t considered- how these images color the history of people, places, and events; and also how search engines rank information by relevancy and popularity. Fortunately, I would expect this to change with time as people search less and less for those images, but then again, if an incident carries a great enough impact, maybe the photos will never be buried…

      Thanks for sharing your perspective with me!

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