2. Sensationalism or public interest? The ethical question

Krop says she felt that the jarring and graphic footage of a young girl being stabbed not only highlighted a possible lack of safety in B.C. schools, but could catalyze the effort to rectify the problem. Burgess had to make a judgement for her audience: Was the video in the public interest? Could the video be that catalyst? Or was it just sensationalism? Television is an incredibly powerful medium and the images it airs can shed light on the realities of the world, but airing graphic or disturbing content isn’t always an appropriate course of action.

Decisions about whether to air graphic video are handled on a case-by-case basis. Dean Jobb, author of Media Law for Canadian Journalists, writes when editors are faced with the dilemma of whether to broadcast graphic content, they should ask themselves a series of questions: “Do the pictures inform or merely shock? Are they newsworthy or do they demand attention simply because they are riveting or unusual? Do they help tell the story, or do they deflect attention from the point that the journalist is trying to make? Perhaps most importantly, do they capture the essence of the story in a way that words alone do not?” [1]

Answering those questions is no easy task, especially in a frenetic newsroom. Bulgutch weighs the benefits of visual storytelling, even when the content is graphic.

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CBC’s Ombudsman, Esther Enkin, says an editorial team must take a principled and a defensible position. She explains that it is critical to take into account the time of day when something might be broadcast, who could potentially be in the audience, and the context in which the content is being broadcast. Furthermore, she says newsrooms should be mindful of the content they place around a graphic video–they should think carefully about how they explain the video itself and how they choose to inform the reader/viewer of its graphic content. And while the public interest may be paramount, editors need to consider the thoughts and feelings of family members or people close to the victims of crime or catastrophe.

Enkin says CBC tries to mitigate sensationalizing stories featuring graphic content: “The warnings are really important for broadcast and all news. It’s important to not use it too often.” Enkin adds that teams shouldn’t use graphic content in headlines and bumpers in their newscasts.

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[1] Jobb, Dean. Media Law for Canadian Journalists. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications, 2006. 399.

Next: 3. Graphic content and broadcast policy