Calls to release more graphic images of deadly attacks meet opposition

The new bipartisan gun safety law that President Biden hailed at a White House ceremony Monday is the first significant gun legislation enacted in decades. A strong debate is also emerging over the role journalism might play. Ed Wasserman of U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and Sandy Phillips, who lost her daughter in a mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., join William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden hailed the new bipartisan gun safety law at a White House ceremony earlier today. It's the first significant legislation on this passed in decades. It would expand background checks to younger adults who are trying to buy guns. It would expand the use of red flag laws and also close a loophole in efforts to deny firearms to dating partners of convicted domestic abuse.

  • President Joe Biden:

    That's what we owe those families in Buffalo, where a grocery store became a killing field. It's what we owe those families in Uvalde, where an elementary school became a killing field.

    That is what we owe those families in Highland Park, where, on July 4, a parade became a killing field. And that is what we owe all those families represented here today and all over this country. We will not save every life from the epidemic of gun violence, but if this law had been in place years ago, even this last year, lives would have been saved. It matters. It matters. But it is not enough, and we all know that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden said he wanted to see much more done, including a ban on assault weapons.

    But, as he was delivering his remarks, he was heckled by a father whose son died in the Parkland, Florida, shooting in 2018. Manuel Oliver shouted at the present that he wanted to see more done. In response, Mr. Biden initially told him to sit down to hear what he had to say, then said he should speak.

    But Oliver was soon escorted out. That frustration about the limits of this law has been echoed around the country by those who are asking what more can be done.

    Alongside this legislative push is another conversation about what role journalism might play in helping address this crisis.

    William Brangham looks at that.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, that discussion centers around whether the media should show graphic images of precisely what gun violence does to its victims.

    For example, some of the children who were shot in Uvalde, Texas, were so disfigured that they could only be identified by their sneakers or by DNA samples. Should images of that kind of violence ever be shown? What purpose would it serve? And who gets to decide?

    There are, of course, strong opinions on all sides of this debate. We wrestle with it here at the "NewsHour."

    And so we wanted to hear tonight from two voices, first, someone who believes that, on balance, the public does need to see these tragedies explicitly. Ed Wasserman teaches journalism and was the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley.

    I spoke with him earlier today.

    Ed Wasserman, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    I know you didn't come to this position easily, but can you make the case? Why should these images be shown?

    Ed Wasserman, U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism: It is true that it is not an easy judgment to make, and it is unquestionably true that there are powerful ethical arguments against the position that I'm going to put forth, which is, I think, what the media ought to — concerns what the media ought to be doing.

    Certainly, showing images of this kind of carnage is tremendously traumatic for the public. These are images that haunt and that stalk people after they have seen them. And it's a tremendous disrespect and indignity to the people who have lost loved ones.

    So there's no question but that the kinds of images that I'm talking about putting into wider circulation are going to come at a cost. My concern is that we are a powerfully visual culture, and we believe things when we see them.

    And our dominant images that the public takes away from these killings are somber, respectful images of candlelight vigil and quietly mourning parents. And that is doing a gross injustice to the actual carnage that's being perpetrated.

    And I think that until — in the same way that Black Lives Matter came to light when the images of people being killed by police became publicly available, I think we're not going to were not going to respond to these incidents of massacres with the anger and disgust that they demand until we have a chance to see just what has been done.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you think that those memorials, the stories about the victims, the statistics and the data that have been repeated so often about homicides and mass shootings and suicides isn't enough, that it's journalistically negligent to not go this one step further?

  • Ed Wasserman:

    I think it borders on concealment.

    And I think that the question of, well, how much do you have to see before the experience and the reality becomes clear to you is an open question. And it varies with individuals. And I'm not talking about, I'm not counseling editors to begin a cascade of horrendous and gruesome images of dead children. That's not the point.

    The point is that we see nothing of the dead in the images that the media provide us with. They are off-screen. They are simple setups for the mourning and for the prayer sessions and all the rest of it. We don't see what's going on.

    And I think that what has happened is sufficiently horrendous that it would change attitudes, it would awaken people to just what it is that goes on. And the media, by not showing us the aftermath of that, are pandering to that, and they're enabling that to be perpetuated.

    And I fear that it's almost a dare. It almost goads the more pathologically twisted of us to have a go themselves.

  • William Brangham:

    One question is access. I mean, a lot of these photographs are not readily available. These are crime scenes.

    Do you think the journalistic organizations should press for more access to forensic images, to police photographs just to get this out?

  • Ed Wasserman:

    Well, I do.

    I question how unavailable these images are, certainly at the point at which people come to trial. And let me just make a different, somewhat related — the reason why they don't is a good question to kind of raise. And I think that it's important for the public to understand the extreme reluctance that editors have presenting these images to them.

    The idea that they — that news organizations would look for cheap and tawdry and obscene and gruesome images because the public — they believe the public likes that and it'll sell newspapers or enhance audience size is totally false.

    Audiences hate this stuff, and news editors present it to audiences with only the greatest reluctance. So this represents from the part of the media, and that, in my view, of courage. They have got to show these images, not because it's tasteful, not because it's something that will advance their own interests as media organizations, but because the public needs to see these things to fully understand the horror that's being routinely perpetrated on us.

  • William Brangham:

    What about the argument that is made that — about who gets to decide this?

    Because I know that there are certainly lots of families of victims who believe that this is a terrible idea, that, no matter what benefit that this might yield, that those families will be forever traumatized if those images are out there, that the darker culture that exists on the Internet and in this world will be constantly bombarding those people with those images of their loved ones in the worst possible moment of their lives, and that they will never be able to get past that.

  • Ed Wasserman:

    I don't have a good answer for that. That is true. This is not being done to benefit the families who've lost children or lost family members to these kinds of things. This is not in their interest.

    It may be in the interest of the other families who perhaps are spared this because of the greater public anger and disgust that these images portray. But this is not in these families interests. It's a tremendous indignity and it deepens their loss. And so I have nothing but compassion for them.

    But I am saying that it is a classic dilemma. It's a wrong vs. a wrong. And my belief is that the wrong that's done by concealment outweighs the wrong that's done by exposure.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Ed Wasserman, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley, thank you so much for being here.

  • Ed Wasserman:

    Thank you, William.

  • William Brangham:

    OK, that's one argument in favor of this.

    For a different take, I'm joined now by a parent who lost her own daughter in the mass shooting at a movie theater 10 years ago in Aurora, Colorado.

    Sandy Phillips is a proponent of stronger gun safety measures, and she was at the White House ceremony with President Biden today.

    Sandy Phillips, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    You heard what Ed Wasserman was saying here, that the way in which we show our culture these tragedies is too sanitized, and that we need to do differently. What do you think about that idea?

    Sandy Phillips, Mother of Aurora Shooting Victim: I think it is a horrible idea, as a parent of a child that was murdered.

    My child was shot six times with .223s from an AR-15. And when I speak, I speak very clearly about what happened to her in the theater and the wounds that she sustained. When we went to trial, the medical examiner, when was discussing her wounds, weeped — he wept on the stand. He just started crying.

    We weren't in — we were at the courtroom, but we weren't in the courtroom when that happened. And after he finished his descriptions of what had happened to my daughter, when the press walked out and the rest of the people that were in the courtroom that day walked out, they were all either crying or ashen or shocked.

    So I understand what he's saying. You almost have to see it to believe it. The problem is, our society doesn't believe what they see anymore anyway. And what you are asking…

  • William Brangham:

    You mean that the images would be challenged as fake and…

  • Sandy Phillips:

    Oh, yes, exactly. I mean, Sandy Hook is challenged as not ever happening. Highland Park already has — and this happens after every mass shooting. There's immediate conspiracy theories that this never happened.

    So would that make it stop? No. Then they would just challenge the pictures. A few years ago, there were some doctors that went on Capitol Hill to lobby. And they took the pictures of bodies who had been shot by AR-15s and other weapons. And it didn't make a difference at all.

    So why should we as parents be asked to carry that burden for society? It's too much to ask of us. It truly is one of those things that, how much more trauma do we have to endure? And just by him talking about how that might make a difference — might make a difference is traumatizing for a lot of us survivors out here.

  • William Brangham:

    Well, we certainly — that's the last thing we want to do to you all.

  • Sandy Phillips:


  • William Brangham:

    And we appreciate you being open to talking about this with us.

    But I want to circle back to this point that you're making about the experience that people had in the courtroom, when they did see the horror that was visited on your daughter, who is here with us on your shirt today.

    You don't think that there's any possible benefit for the rest of the country, the good-hearted people in this country to see what high-powered weapons actually do to children?

  • Sandy Phillips:

    You know, they can go online and see what AR-15s do to a watermelon and how it explodes a watermelon. They can go online and see that damage that it does to a mannequin.

    They can see the damage that it does to a deer. They don't need and they aren't privileged to see what that did to my daughter. And I don't want that image ever to be out there for anyone else to see. I certainly don't want it there for my son to have to see. And then I think of my cousins, my nephews, my — it goes on and on.

  • William Brangham:

    Your grandchildren, right.

  • Sandy Phillips:

    Exactly, the ripple effect. And they will live forever on the Internet.

    So is that something that we as a society really want to do to the families that have already lost so much, had so much taken from them? I hope not.

  • William Brangham:

    If the images were anonymized, how would you feel about that?

  • Sandy Phillips:

    Well, that's perfectly OK.

    And I'm perfectly OK with a family member saying, I'm OK with doing this, because they understand what that's going to mean to them. And if they're OK — it's a very personal choice. And if they're OK with that, I say more power to them, much like Emmett Till's and being able to change society.

    The mother in Sandy Hook, one of the mothers there, had the governor come in to see the damage that was done to her son. I think all of those things are important, but I don't think we should make it a blind — every time there's a mass shooting, let's show that the carnage, because those pictures last forever, and the people that are affected by it have to witness that over and over again.

    We have a dear friend whose daughter was killed on camera. And he has been trying to get that taken down from YouTube for over five, six years now because it's out there. And he never knows when he's going to open up an e-mail, and it might be there. He never knows when his wife might open an e-mail, and it's there.

    So this is really an unfair burden to ask of any of us. It's an OK burden to ask of our elected leaders, and we should be asking them to witness what actually happens. They should be made to go down and go into those classrooms where children have been literally decapitated by bullets and can only be identified through DNA.

    They should be the ones that go down there and witness it. We shouldn't have to.

  • William Brangham:

    Sandy Phillips, always great to see you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

  • Sandy Phillips:

    Thank you, William.

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