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Losing fingers

Amanda Farnsworth | 10:48 UK time, Wednesday, 28 June 2006

We had an exclusive from our medical correspondent yesterday - an interview with Ryan Wilson. He was one of the young men who reacted almost fatally to a drug being tested in a trial at Northwick Park.

BBC Six O'Clock News logoIt was a moving interview and one of the most moving things was how Ryan was very matter of fact about the reality that he will have to lose most of his fingers and toes because they've essentially died as part of his reaction to the drug.

Ryan Wilson, one of the drug trial volunteersLife goes on, he said. For us on the programme, we were again confronted with the issue of how much do we show of Ryan's injuries. In truth I didn't think this was a hard one - his hands were unbandaged, the tips of his fingers simply black, and it wasn't too unpleasant and of course the fact that he was going to undergo amputation was at the heart of the story.

His toes were covered and I am told looked far worse. But these issues - about showing strong images of injury or suffering - are the subject of continued and heated debate in the newsroom. Iraq and Gaza are just two of the stories recently where we've had to make difficult judgements. I think I shall be blogging on this subject frequently.


  • 1.
  • At 02:37 PM on 28 Jun 2006,
  • Al wrote:

You raise an important issue here, and one which I feel strongly about. As a former journalist, I am only too aware of some of the gruesome sights which are seen in the course of newsgathering. In many instances, such as coverage of a fire, or road accident, there is no need to show explicit pictures of casualties, and such editing does not detract from the veracity of the report. However in coverage of conflict, warfare, and perhaps even terrorism there is a danger that sanitising the coverage introduces an element of bias.

If one constantly covers stories of war without showing the terrible consequences - and that does, unfortunately include dead bodies - it can result in a loss of reality. American domestic opposition to the Vietnam war, for example, grew significantly as a direct result of news footage showing its consequences. And this may explain the present US government's extreme reluctance to show even the coffins of servicemen killed in Iraq.

It is the job of all news media to give a true and accurate picture of events, and if the reality of that includes images which are unsettling, then that is the reality. Airbrushing and sanitising events simply creates an unreality which detracts from their true horror and significance. While it may be acceptable for daytime bulletins, beofre the watershed, there is no excuse for it in later ones.

Talking of Gaza, and Iraq:

To show the 'truth' cannot drive everything, especially where it concerns gruesome pictures. The truth is that the person died, and to show the body close-up in order to press home how horrific it was does not 'extend' the truth anymore than showing the body from a distance, unless you're aiming for shock-value. Then it is a different story.

The only danger in continually 'shocking' viewers is that they could lose their sensitivity, and in time treat it as routine, with hardly any feelings for it. It's already happening if it hasn’t already.

If you can tell a story well, communicating helplessness, pathos, and more importantly loss, then you evoke a lasting impression among viewers. Show loss in those left behind.

The dead are gone; it is in the pain of the living that the dead will ‘live’ again.

  • 3.
  • At 05:58 PM on 28 Jun 2006,
  • Jack Oatmon wrote:

Exposing suffering is not always fun, but being exposed to suffering is at the very heart of an empathetic individual's development. Hollywood action flicks and sensationalized killings add a fairy-tale vibe to pain, but when we're directly confronted with the subtle agonies of real people, it humanizes the tragedy. Like that photo from Vietnam with the little girl in the street running. Not overblown, just real.
jack oatmon

I don't like the way that the BBC News places such emphasis on 'exclusive' access: my first thought is always how much money the BBC has paid for this right, and my second thought is that the BBC should not be restricting the ability of its sources to speak to other outlets for the greater good of all. As such it cuts across the public service ethic underpinning the BBC service as a whole: it should not be in the marketplace with newspapers etc in seeking to control 'its' sources. I would rather the BBC competed in terms of accuracy and clarity rather than speed and exclusivity.

  • 5.
  • At 08:34 PM on 28 Jun 2006,
  • Aaron D wrote:

Along the same lines, I would be interested to know how the television side BBC News handled the images of 9/11. Here in the United States, essentially every editor of every print and television news outlet in the nation chose not to show any of the carnage on the ground in New York and at the Pentagon, despite this having been the most photographed and videotaped event in modern history. In fact, this decision remains in force to this day; with the exception of a single photo of a severed hand published in the New York Daily News on September 12, 2001, and a very few photographs posted on a shock site, which they only obtained when the photos became public evidence in the US government's case against Zacharias Moussaoui, the American news media's clampdown on these images has been total and complete. If you want to see them, you have to be an employee of a news organization.

Of course, this issue is of an entirely different level than a discussion over whether or not to provide mildly unpleasant images for a medical story; the refusal of the American media to show the graphic images almost certainly caused the immediate post-attack outrage of the American public to be far less potent than it otherwise could have been, while the worst that could happen by leaving these images out of Wilson's story is that viewers may feel a bit less angered over the issue of drug trials. But it should be noted that there are times where journalistic refusal to show such images, such as on 9/11, can have massive effects on how the public will react to a given story.

In essence, the question is: At their hearts, are these sorts of internal newsroom debates over disturbing images truly about how much they add to the story, or are they, at least to an extent, more of a subconscious desire for news editors to retain some level of their formerly-unassailable gatekeeper control over how much the public "ought" to know?

  • 6.
  • At 07:07 PM on 29 Jun 2006,
  • David Cutts wrote:

It seems to me that the stance you took on the volunteer was about right (although I did not see it live.) More important, though, is the coverage of conflict. Very little TV coverage captures what I assume is the horror of warfare, so the consequences of actions are not properly understood by western states that launch violence on others, or watch third world violence from a distance. This has a real effect on the politics of war and of weapons, and its tendency is to encourage acceptance rather than rejection of violent strategies. Of course, given the status quo, governments waging war will accuse a news organisation that shows the results of war of 'aiding the enemy' or 'providing enemy propoaganda'. But the truth is, I think, that sanitised war reporting is often propaganda in favour of the warrior, since it makes his action palatable.

  • 7.
  • At 10:51 PM on 29 Jun 2006,
  • Philip wrote:

I agree that you need to have the ability to show shocking pictures when the story mandates it. But this needs to be done sparingly. I am currently reading John Simpson's book about Iraq and Saddam. His bravery in getting the story was also balanced by not always showing the most shocking sights, to avoid compassion fatigue setting in.

I think you need to also avoid the american 'if it bleeds, it leads' style where the 'real story' is lost behind the need for greater shock tactics in the rush for ratings.

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