Introduction to Offensive Images and Language:
Sometimes an ethical dilemma will arise between a journalist’s need to tell the truth and minimize harm to the public. No where is it more evident than when graphic images, videos or language are used in news stories or advertising.
In 2015, Nilüfer Demir, a photographer working for the DHA, took a photograph of a Syrian toddler who had washed up on a beach in Turkey after his family attempted to flee Syria. The photo of the boy’s body lying motionless on the beach stirred controversy about the use of the image in news reports. Critics argued that the image was too graphic and offensive to show general audiences, but others argued the image was instrumental in changing the global response to the Syrian refugee crisis. This link to iMediaEthics provides a list and reasons why some news organizations chose to publish the photograph.
Offensive language or images are not limited to news reports. Advertisers have run against this same ethical issue many times. The U.K. clothing company, Nobody’s Child, had ads pulled from public view because the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said the ads sexualized a young girl. The images in question can be found at this link to the Business Insider story.
Possible Classroom Activities:
Have the students divide into groups to discuss a series of images or social media posts by news organizations and advertisers. After they take a moment to look over the images as a group, have them decide if they would publish or not publish the images or texts in question. The students must cite reasons why the would or would not use the media.
The ASA provides a list of offensive advertisements for educational use. The link contains a list of offensive ads, the complains the ASA received about the ads and their final ruling.
Stephen Ward, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, wrote an essay outlining the responsibility of a free press to minimize harm, but also balance their freedom to publish important images and stories.
This video by the Ethical Journalism Network argues that sometimes the need to publish offensive material outweighs a journalist’s need to minimize harm to the public. The video emphasizes the need for context in such cases.
AdWeek published a story outlining a series of events brought on when a design firm in Florida posted a Facebook ad of a tree with a single noose around it and the title “the Hanging Tree” over the image. The company then proceeded to argue with users on social media in response to offense from the ad.