Buffalo, New York. Uvalde, Texas. Tulsa, Oklahoma. A month ago, none of these towns would have been in the news for anything remarkable, but now, they have all shared headlines for the same reason: each has had a mass shooting, all within the last month. And each time, we never actually see what the carnage looks like. Is now the time to change that practice?
It is very, very rare in the United States to see photographs of victims of gun violence. You’ll often see it in wire service images from other countries, but not in the United States, and the reason for that is twofold. For one, access to crime scenes is often quickly limited, so journalists can’t often get in. When they can get in, photos like these don’t often pass what my college journalism professor called the “Cheerios test.” It’s a question that an editor choosing to run a photo will ask themselves: Will the person eating their cereal at breakfast throw up after seeing such a photo? In most cases, the answer is yes, they will, and so, the photos usually don’t run.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. The one I remember most vividly is a 2012 photo that The New York Times ran of a man who was shot near the Empire State Building. You could clearly see his face and a stream of blood pouring from his head into the street. It was a stark, visceral reminder of what a gun can do to a human being.
And it’s with the latest spate of mass shootings that it’s time to raise the question again: should these photos be released? Would seeing the bodies of children ravaged by an assault rifle change the conversation? Would it be enough to send a message to government officials that inaction, this time, is not the solution?
This photo-editing issue is dissected by The New York Times’ Elizabeth Williamson, where she interviews experts and most notably the father of a child victim of the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut in 2012 about this very idea, of releasing photos of the bodies of children that were gunned down while going about an ordinary school day.
Perhaps it’s the jaded journalist in me, but I rarely cry about news stories. The last time I remember doing that for a news story was one of the incidents that Williamson references in her piece, where a dead Syrian refugee, a three-year-old boy, washed ashore in Turkey in 2015.
I cried again listening to the accounts from Uvalde of children who are my son’s age smearing their murdered friends’ blood on themselves to appear dead to the shooter as they repeatedly called 911, begging for help for the better part of an hour. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in both of these stories, the victims were brown children of roughly the same age as my own. It shouldn’t take being a parent to have empathy, to do something in light of these heinous acts, but apparently, that hasn’t been enough in the past to spur people and elected officials to action.
Perhaps seeing the photos of bullet-riddled bodies of children will be enough? Perhaps not.
Take a read of Williamson’s piece above for a nuanced take on this idea.