Is sharing graphic photos ethical? Boston bombings victim weighs in

social media, ethics, graphic images, Jeff Bauman, Boston Marathon bombingsAfter the Boston Marathon bombings, many Americans took to social media to follow coverage of the attacks, and also to show support for the victims, their family and friends, and the city of Boston. In fact, just minutes after the bombings, “#PrayForBoston” was trending on Twitter. In the spirit of trying to get news out there and trying to show support for the city of Boston, many graphic photographs from the scene were shared on April 15 and the days following. Although those sharing the photos may have had good intentions, there are ethical implications to consider when sharing graphic images.

One of the images that went viral after the bombings showed a victim who lost his leg in the blast. The man has since been identified as Jeff Bauman. The photograph clearly shows Bauman’s face, so his family and friends could see it in their newsfeeds before they got any notification from Bauman himself. I couldn’t imagine finding out about my loved one in this manner.

Not only does the victim need to be taken into consideration, you also need to think about minors online and whether or not graphic images are appropriate for them to be viewing. Some may argue that if they’re online without parental supervision, they’re old enough to handle whatever content they see. Here’s my problem with that logic: Minors are going to find ways to get online without their parents knowledge, and I’m 25 and photos from Boston are hard for me to look at.

social media, ethics, graphic images, Jeff Bauman, Boston Marathon bombings

You could also make the argument that your social media followers are all adults. However, with the viral nature of social media (especially Twitter), the content you share could be seen by the world in mere minutes. If you wouldn’t want your child to see the image, I wouldn’t recommend sharing it on social media.

As much as we can all weigh in on how sharing graphic images is or isn’t ethical, I think the best point of view that we can receive is from the victim himself. One year after the attacks, Bauman was interviewed about his iconic photo. He said he wished that his parents hadn’t found out about his injuries from the photo, or seen him in that state. His mother searched for him for hours after the photo had gone viral. Bauman also said he wishes he wasn’t the face of the victims so he could recover in peace and at his own pace.

I’ve mainly been talking about the unethical nature of posting graphic photos, but Bauman points out another side to the issue. He said he’s no longer angry about the photo because the photographer was doing his job and was helping in his own way. He was showing the world the truth. He also points out that the photo isn’t about of the bombings or him being injured. The photo captures the heroes who helped save people that day.

News organizations are going to share graphic images, that’s the nature of news. Next time before you share an image, consider the people you could be impacting.

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4 thoughts on “Is sharing graphic photos ethical? Boston bombings victim weighs in

  1. Hi Lauren- really nice post here and you’ve laid everything out really clearly. Thank you for digging up the article interviewing Jeff who did become the face off the victims. What a weight and responsibility that must hold. As a person who doesn’t like their picture to be used for the media I’m really mindful of showing the faces of people. I do think the photographer was acting in the moment, but he most certainly wasn’t thinking to get permission to use the photo. SHOW A LITTLE RESTRAINT. I’m a very private person, and so I can really hear what Jeff is saying in that he feels he is the face of the victims and he’d rather recover in peace and privacy. At the same time, I do agree with Jeff in that the photo isn’t just about him, the photo is about capturing the moment and recognizing the people helping; yet the ethical implications of it are huge which you really nailed.

    • Thanks Blythe! It’s easy for all of us to weigh in on the situation, but I thought that Jeff’s interview on the matter provided a perspective that that was not only unique, but kind of the most important. He is the one who is most impacted by the photo, even if he doesn’t choose to look at it or acknowledge it. If I had just lost both of my legs, I don’t think I’d want to be in the public eye as I recovered and tried to go back to my normal life.

  2. Hi Lauren,
    I agree with you. Before any news outlet or person thinks about sharing content that is graphic in nature they need to consider how it will impact others. In this case a man’s health and well-being were at stake. I did not find it appropriate that this image went viral. I really love the point you made about finding out about a loved one’s condition on social media before getting contacted by them personally. If I were Jeff’s family and saw this floating around on the news and social media I would have lost it. My mind would have gone a million miles a minute and I would have been in a state of sheer panic. I don’t think many news organizations considered that before posting this image. Great post!

    • Thanks Alexis! I cannot even imagine how nerve-wracking it must have been for Jeff’s family as they were trying to find him. I understand why news organizations share these pictures, they really do help people understand the story, but even if they had delayed posting the image a little bit longer (I know that’s not the nature of news) at least the families wouldn’t have had to find out on social media.

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