As news about a Malaysia Airlines jet going down in Ukraine began breaking, the Reuters news service tweeted what it described as the first photo from the scene in Ukraine. The image was ghastly: It showed a man hosing down the shattered, still-smoldering remains of a plane that just moments before had carried 295 people.
Upon closer examination, though, the photo was ghastlier still. Amid the black and gray debris, the legless torso of a corpse stood out, as did what appeared to be several severed body parts.
"Do you really have to tweet these graphic pictures?" replied a Twitter account, one of several that raised objections to the photo. "We can all imagine the carnage.
Think of the families."
News organisations have forever struggled with determining the line where news value ends and shock value and sensationalism begin. A graphic photo or video, after all, can pack an emotional impact and be more truthful in its depiction of an event than can sanitized images.
Or it can just be revolting and insensitive.
This subjective and ever-moving line has gotten even blurrier with the advent of social media, which makes the transmission of images easy, inexpensive and often instantaneous. Professional media standards, including prohibitions on publishing "graphic" images, have become even tougher to uphold when journalists on the scene of a news story can send grisly images streaming through their own Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vine accounts without an editor to screen them.
The downing of a jet in Ukraine was the second major news story in two days that prompted journalists to reconsider the desirability of distributing raw images via social media.
On Thursday, journalists staying at a beach-side hotel in Gaza were eyewitnesses to the deaths of four children who were apparently hit by an Israeli artillery shell or missile while playing soccer. The reporters began tweeting written accounts and images almost immediately, including photos of the dead boys and their shocked and grieving relatives.
A firefighter hoses down the smoldering remains of the plane. Photo / AFP
One photo, tweeted by Wall Street Journal reporter Nick Casey, was so bloody and disturbing that The Washington Post decided to link to it rather than embed it in its online account of the incident.
News organisations say they counsel their journalists to adhere to formal and informal policies regarding the distribution of gruesome images via their social-media accounts.
Reuters' policy, for example, says in part: "As journalists, we have an obligation to convey the reality of what we report accurately, yet a duty to be aware that such material can cause distress, damage the dignity of the individuals concerned or even in some cases so overpower the viewer or reader that a rational understanding of the facts is impaired. We do not sanitise violence, bowdlerise speech or euphemise sex. We should not, however, publish graphic images and details or obscene language gratuitously or with an intention to titillate or to shock."
First-aid workers gather on the site of the crash. Photo / AFP
Heather Carpenter, a spokeswoman for the London-based news agency, declined to comment on its Malaysia Airlines photo, which was retweeted more than 1,600 times by Thursday evening, including by other news organisations. Some deleted the image from their feeds after other tweeters pointed out the body parts in the photo.
The Washington Post discourages its reporters from tweeting photos without an editor's supervision, said MaryAnne Golon, the newspaper's director of photography. "If there's a question about it, if it crosses a taste boundary, we ask to vet it first," she said.
Reporters for the Associated Press "are generally not tweeting photos from breaking news events ... [but] generally our folks understand the sensitivities around graphic content", said Santiago Lyon, an AP vice president and director of photography.
He said: "We vet any such images that might show graphic scenes in the same way we vet the images of graphic scenes that we distribute to our customers."
The flight wreckage near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine. Photo / AP
Sometimes, discretion might be the better part of journalism. Noah Sneider, a Russia-based freelance reporter and self-described "occasional photographer", was on the scene of the jet crash Thursday and tweeted a running stream of impressions and facts.
But Sneider had second thoughts about how far he should go; he was among a handful of reporters who decided not to send photos.
"At crash site of #MH17," he tweeted early Thursday. "Bodies everywhere, organs splayed out. Too gruesome to post photographs. This is an absolute disaster."
- Washington Post