Interlude - A case study on emotional response

Chris Gioran bio photo By Chris Gioran

This week, the global media have been disturbed by the appearance of graphic images from (the Syrian war)[http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/public-editor/the-delicate-handling-of-images-of-war.html], the Kenya massacre and the Empire State Building shooting (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/25/nyregion/empire-state-building-shooting.html).

Coincidentally, in Athens, the murder of Pavlos Fyssas by a member of the Golden Dawn party produced a similarly controversial picture of the victim right after he had passed on (for a very interesting discussion on the issue, visit Thodoris Georgakopoulos’ site - in Greek).

The controversy surrounding these images is around their brutal nature against their impact on the significance and spread of a news story as well as issues of dignity, privacy and insulting sensibilities of the audience. One point of view holds that making these images available add a visual element to the story that articulates specifics much better than any word description and are therefore necessary. The opposing thesis is that the dignity and privacy of the individuals shown in these photos are offended while the benefit is doubtful.

I am not going to deal with those issues. I’d like instead to see how an emotional response on the decision to publish them or not would play out and how it would help.

This article introduces a rule for deciding on the issue. It is quite simple - “Does the public need this information in order to make informed choices for society?”. My position is that both the rule itself and the reasoning behind it are emotional in their basis, and that if emotion is consulted on the question of making a photo available or not will reach a similar, if not the same conclusion.

Photographs like the ones discussed above, elicit strong sentiment from the viewers, especially when presented in support of a news story. Pictures of injuries, death, gaunt figures are haunting, bringing the suffering closer to the reader. They are designed to appeal to emotion, with their function as evidence coming in second. Journalists and photographers know that of course, and there are well known examples where taking advantage of the fact had led to significant results. But, using such a powerful tool is in itself a moral decision. The journalist must decide whether she must appeal to the audiences’ psyche, force them to bring forward feelings for the story’s subject in a way that will form stronger opinions. And, importantly, the opinions will partly be influenced by the journalists’ presentation. This is not something to be taken lightly, and is a prime example of the moral nature of the journalist’s vocation.

But, how can the journalist judge the emotional impact of a photograph to her audience? And how can she weigh that impact against the respect for the photographed subject’s dignity and privacy, as well as the sensibilities of the readers? One may claim that the journalist’s own response to it ought to be enough a rule. She knows the subject matter well, she has access to more material that most members of the public and probably develops a deeper connection with the story. If she, by being exposed to the photograph, has an improved perception for it, then perhaps it can be safely assumed that it will influence significantly the public. Thus, the information contained in that photograph will inform the audience, influencing their decisions on the subject and consequently, for society as a whole.

The reasoning above is quite hand wavy, not unlikely wrong. I’d like to hear counterarguments. But, it feels like emotion, when properly filtered through simple rational devices can solve in a fulfilling way interesting questions. I want to continue exploring the concept, looking next into those rational devices.

Thank you.