The Kerdasa Massacre, August 2013. Fifty militants storm the police station, killing 14 policemen. Graphic visuals of dead and mutilated bodies splashed all over traditional Egyptian news outlets and online platforms.
Later, pictures of beheadings of Christians by Daesh (Islamic State group). Fighters play football with decapitated heads. Homosexuals are thrown to their deaths from rooftops. Victims are dragged to their deaths behind pickup trucks. A pornography of violence, readily available in the media.
The United States, December 2009. Obama finally lifts an 18-year ban on photographing flag-draped coffins of America’s war dead, put in place, as some argue, to sanitise conflicts and avoid angering the American public. School shootings make the headlines, with no pictures of the victims.
Bombings of buildings photographed at far distances to avoid showing the humanity trapped inside. Gauzed-over photographs of images deemed too graphic and upsetting to the viewer. “Warning: what you are about to see may be disturbing ... ”
Is the Egyptian media being too gruesome? Is the American media too sanitised?
Graphic images in the Egyptian media have been increasingly frequent, corresponding to the growing levels of bloodshed in the country since the toppling of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.
Mubarak’s overthrow was shortly followed by another popular uprising that removed Mohamed Morsi, and this in turn spawned three years of sporadic and increasingly dramatic insurgency in North Sinai, but also in other central locations strategically selected to maximise the impact of fear and uncertainty.
The violence in Egypt has converged with the growth of terrorism and violence elsewhere in the Arab world, as organisations such as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and Daesh gain more attention.
As we reached this state, the Egyptian media duly recorded the carnage. The fascination for violent and graphic imagery has and continues to remain at the top of news bulletins of national and regional traditional media outlets, as well as dominating the scene on social media platforms.
Meanwhile, in America, and in Western countries generally, traditional media is less likely to show graphic images today than a few decades ago. Instead, debates are conducted on the psychological harm done to children from viewing violent images, leading to a tightening of editorial ethics codes.
To find out about how the Arab public perceives the presentation of graphic and conflict-related visuals in Arab media, I recently carried out an Arabic-language survey of 638 respondents from 53 countries. Ninety eight percent of them had backgrounds from 20 Arab countries plus Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Nearly nine in 10 respondents supported the use of graphic imagery. They overwhelmingly felt that graphic imagery provided a unique source of visual information about what is actually happening. In the words of one respondent, “Seeing these pictures and videos allows me to form a much clearer picture of what is really going on … of how young boys are being killed by occupation forces, while the world stands idly watching."
"People should know how our blood became cheaper than a bottle of water.”
Another clarified: “If people are suffering as a consequence of war, then it should be reported through all types of media. What happens to the rest of us should be shown, since our people are on the receiving end of the bombs and the bullets.”
Other respondents, however, made a distinction around the term “graphic”. One said: “The real problem is that these things are actually happening and NOT that they are being shown on TV.” Another clarified: “We didn’t see graphic images. What is graphic, are the events per se.”
Feeding the public with a steady diet of grotesque imagery gives exposure and oxygen to the perpetrators. It’s like kidnapping: paying the ransoms just generates more kidnappings. Terrorists use traditional media and social media as a powerful marketing tool to magnify their ability to spread chaos and fear.
Research demonstrates that graphic images in general are perceived to have powerful effects on the public. So is there a way for journalists to grab the public’s attention and generate justified outrage about a graphic event without playing into the hands of the perpetrators’ need for exposure?
Yes. Some may recall the iconic Vietnam War photo of the young girl burned by fiery napalm. It was reported to have changed America’s perception of the war. What was so unique about that image?
First, it was a child – a young innocent victim. Second, the look of terror on that child’s face compelled the viewer to understand what had happened to her. Third, she had no clothes on – a disturbing feature, devoid of dignity, driving home the impersonal nature of the situation. As graphic as any in today’s papers, but not mind-numbing, and rebuffing those who might want to burnish the image of their own power through visuals of their enemy’s torture and death.
Closer to home, we have the drowned Syrian boy on the beach. Not as graphic visually, but similarly powerful in humanising the migration crisis.
Here are the words of another respondent: “I feel that we need to see the horrors of war and the chaos to understand the ramifications of any future similar decision. Many young leaders will be responsible one day to make similar decisions in time of war or strife. And only by discussing what is happening … can they test the logic of their choices by reflecting it in the minds of other people with whom they discuss the matter.”
Violent visuals matter. The public’s right to know and journalists’ responsibility to serve as a watchdog for the public’s interest form the moral basis for the journalist’s freedom to gather and disseminate information.
But Egyptian media should ask themselves: “Do our viewers really need more taboo content in their steady diet of this pornography of violence?” And the Western Media should ask themselves: “Do our viewers really need more taboo content, in their steady diet of pablum?” If the answers to these questions are “No” and “Yes”, respectively, then it would make the media more effective at informing – and influencing – public opinion.
The writer is professor at the University of Arizona and the first female Arab-American tenured journalism faculty member at a research university in the United States. Her book Visual Communication Theory and Research received the research excellence award for the most outstanding book of 2014 by the National Communication Association (NCA).