Should the Public See What Gunshots Really Do to Bodies?

The Uvalde shooting has rekindled a long-running debate in the news media
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted May 30, 2022 6:05 PM CDT
Updated May 30, 2022 9:03 PM CDT
Should the Public See What Gunshots Really Do to Bodies?
In this June 8, 1972, photo taken by Nick Ut, South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places.   (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)

What do high-velocity rounds from an AR-15 do to a child's body, and should the public see it? Last week's mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has rekindled a debate about whether publishing graphic images might prompt more urgent, meaningful action. As the New York Times reports, families and the media asked the same question after Sandy Hook, and the core ethical issue is almost as old as photography itself. The famous photo of "Whipped Peter" helped spur outrage over slavery in 1863, and Nick Ut's 1972 photo "Napalm Girl" (above) altered perceptions of the Vietnam War, but both images also shocked the public at the time.

"It is true that shocking photos of suffering occasionally do make an imprint," Bruce Shapiro of Columbia University told the Times, but it’s a tough ethical predicament because “you never really do know which is the photograph that is going to seem exploitative, and what image will … move the needle on the debate.” Jelani Cobb, a writer and incoming dean at Columbia’s School of Journalism, said, “For all the political utility [and] motivational usefulness in terms of getting people out into the street … I’m not at all certain that it [would be] ethical or right to display these images in this way.”

Not everyone is on the fence. According to Vanity Fair, former Seattle Times editor David Boardman tweeted: “It’s time—with permission of a surviving parent—to show what a slaughtered 7-year-old looks like. Maybe only then will we find the courage for more than thoughts and prayers.” NPR’s Nancy Barnes agreed, replying, “We cannot sanitize these killings.” Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox suggested on CNN that such images should at least be required viewing for lawmakers, saying, “If they're going to make that choice and say that anybody should have access to those guns, then they should know the cost.” (Read more Uvalde mass shooting stories.)

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