Image by wirestock on Envato ElementsImage by wirestock on Envato ElementsBY GABBY SHERWOOD

The ability to view, post and share photographs and videos of significant international events such as conflicts and wars is one of the digital age' advancements and aids to the journalism industry. Before the digital revolution, it was the sole responsibility of journalists and newspapers to choose the images that the world would see, and many of those diligently and thoughtfully selected images shaped public opinions of historical events, such as the infamous Vietnam War photo referred to as "Napalm Girl," shot by AP photojournalist Nick Ut. The photo was published on the front cover of newspapers all over the world and changed the tide of the American public opinion against the war and the United States' military involvement (Ang, 2014, page 278). While it is still the moral and professional obligation of journalists to accurately report current events to the public, anyone with a mobile device is also now able to post commentary covering the same news. Digital media is accessible on any platform at any time, giving online news outlets the power to instantly reach a global audience through articles, podcasts, photographs, videos and social media posts. However, news organizations share concerns about misinformation in the media increasing as a result of the volume of content available online. This accessibility also allows sensitive content to reach unprepared audiences in an instant. While the ethical discussion of publishing graphic photographs of dead bodies, violence and other sensitive subject matter is not new, it is more important than ever to address the issue of the overwhelming volume of graphic visual content from the Israel-Hamas war circulating the media. After identifying the key details of the case, morally relevant facts, ethical issues, external and internal factors, and stakeholders of the issue, the TARES ethical model will be used to analyze and explore questions of the necessity and ethics of the influx of graphic videos and photographs of the Israel-Hamas war. It will be determined if the content is either essential to the truthful and holistic coverage of the conflict or if the tragedies of war are too traumatizing for media consumers to view.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel and infiltrated the country by airstrikes and ground attacks. The next day, the Israeli military responded with airstrikes into Gaza as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel is "at war" with the Hamas militants who rule the territory (Mapping out the Israel-Hamas War, 2023, para. 5). After Hamas' deadly attack and Gaza' destruction resulting from Israel' retaliation, the death toll rapidly increased as civilians, children, soldiers and hostages on both sides were killed amid the war. Since then, there has been a non-stop production and flow of photos and videos showing the destruction of Gaza, dead bodies, innocent civilians bloodied and distraught, and many other harrowing and traumatic scenes. Although journalists have limited access to covering the war on the ground in Gaza, videos and images are being shared on the internet from multiple different sources, some of which come from questionable intentions and credibility (Bauder, 2023, para. 2). An overwhelming majority of the sensitive content shared has been seen on social media platforms rather than professional news articles. Furthermore, there has been a significant increase in misinformation circulating in the media. "This war in many respects has confirmed our working assumption, that news organizations would see an influx of deep fakes and misinformation at a scale that was never seen before" (Bauder, 2023, para. 18). This has left investigative and data-oriented journalists with the responsibility to debunk falsehoods and sift through thousands of video clips and photos to determine what is true and can be used to discover clues and information for stories. According to Bauder, the task has proven to be an emotionally draining and overwhelming job. The volume of misinformation from the war has led some news organizations to create and launch new investigative units designed to examine AI-generated imagery and deep fakes. CBS' news-and-stations formed their new unit, "CBS News Confirmed," to face this problem head-on. Led by Claudia Milne and Ross Dagan, the team uses technology and data to study videos and images online that could be used as evidence. "The hope is that the new unit will produce segments on its findings and explain to audiences how the information in question was determined to be fake or inaccurate" (Steinberg, 2023, para. 3).

It is exceptionally easy for media consumers to quickly access and see the graphic photos from the Israel-Hamas War in the media, whether intentionally or accidentally. Many ethical issues come with this accessibility. While news outlets are selecting and publishing videos and images to go with articles covering updates on the war, if the subject matter is sensitive, a content warning is almost always issued for viewers. However, an overwhelming majority of the visual content from the war is posted and shared by non-trained, citizen journalists on social media platforms, which are often some of the most jarring and disturbing images. The content is harrowing, "images of mangled bodies, bloodied children carried out of rubble, people distraught at the loss of loved ones" (Bauder, 2023, para. 10). It is extremely difficult for media consumers to see these harsh photos on their social media feeds when they are not mentally prepared to view such sensitive content. Another ethical issue is the risk of children accessing and seeing violent images on the social media apps they use. "In Israel, some authorities are suggesting that parents keep their children off social media altogether to prevent them from being exposed to violent content, after a Hamas leader said the group would broadcast executions of Israeli hostages" (Oremus & Nix, 2023, para. 10). While people of all ages can be traumatized and emotionally triggered after viewing a graphic picture, it is unfortunately now a common discussion amongst parents and educators to protect children who are too young to be seeing war content.

Briana Sanchez, Director of Photography at the Austin American-Statesman, finds the situation of the rapid circulation of graphic content on social media concerning as a media consumer and a trained journalist. "We're so desensitized to a lot of the stuff that comes out [from the war] and it makes it really difficult for bigger news organizations to decide if they should put stuff out there or not" (B. Sanchez, personal communication, 2023). The ethical issue of desensitization to violent content is not unique to the most recent Israel-Hamas war, but it does impact how each individual consumes media, forms their personal opinion, and processes information. "The fact that we can put stuff out there that is sensitive subject matter of people that don't look like us, that don't talk like us, that don't have the same background as us, it' almost easier [for people to look at harsh photos] because we're disconnecting from their people" (B. Sanchez, personal communication, 2023). People' desensitization to violence not only stems from the consumption of graphic media. Sanchez suggests it is a product of many factors, but a significant one being the numerous mass shootings the American public has experienced. "I think when we see hard photos it' not as impactful as it used to be. It feels like more tragedy is happening because it is so accessible now, and it takes milliseconds to get to us, when before it took a day' print" (B. Sanchez, personal communication, 2023). While photographs in journalism have historically been a powerful way to inform and shape public opinion, this effect has become skewed because there is too much digital content available.

Another ethical issue is that the public is heavily divided on the Israel-Hamas war, which also impacts how people process the media they consume. While the roots of the Israel-Hamas conflict are deep and complex and the public' divide on the war is a multifaceted issue on its own, some of the factors contributing to the divide are potentially a result of desensitization, high rates of misinformation and disconnection from the conflict and suffering taking place.

There are numerous external and internal factors within the complex facets of the flood of graphic and sensitive images and videos from the Israel-Hamas war that should be considered. An external factor of this issue is news organizations' lack of control over the graphic content and misinformation being shared online. To a legal extent and within a social network' user policies, people have a right to free speech, allowing them to share their commentary, which Sanchez suggests will never be fully unbiased coverage because it lacks the conversations of diverse opinions in a newsroom. However, social media platforms and social networks hold power and responsibility to regulate the content shared by its users in consideration of the platform' moderation and security policies. This internal factor should be considered because while companies such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram have banned any expressions of support for Hamas, "still, videos that appear to have been taken by Hamas members have surfaced on all three platforms, in some cases because they are allowed by exceptions for newsworthiness or "counter-speech"' (Oremus & Nix, 2023, para. 7). A further external factor is the economic and political motives behind those who contribute to the influx of graphic content in the media. Not everyone shares the same credibility and integrity as trained journalists do. For example, members of extremist or terrorist groups may share violent videos on a social network to spread hate, fear, and war propaganda. Another external factor is the assumed and actual risk of AI-generated imagery contributing to the misinformation frenzy. This risk must be considered since many people fear the advancements of artificial intelligence and its potential ability to evade AI detection tools. According to Bauder, experts say the use of artificial intelligence is limited and old videos being labeled as new is a greater threat of misinformation than AI-generated imagery. "Nowadays, journalists and fact-checkers struggle not so much with deep fakes but with visuals taken out of context or with crude manipulations, such as cropping of images or so-called 'cheapfakes'" (Simon et al., 2023, para. 19). While some experts dismiss the threat of AI-generated content, the volume of misinformation available should be considered as it contributes to the fog of an already complex conflict. Familiar to Robert McNamara from his time as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, McNamara explains the fog of war means "war is so complex it' beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables" (Rafi Schwartz, 2023, para. 1).

Before the case and all of its facts and questions are analyzed through the use of an ethical theory, the ethical stakeholders must be addressed. To fairly address all third parties that are impacted, civilians will be separated into two categories: those who are impacted by the war directly and those who see it through the media. Palestinian and Israeli citizens who are directly affected by the war are the ethical stakeholders who should reserve the highest priority and consideration. Innocent civilians caught amid the war are traumatized by the death of loved ones, loss of homes and security, and a sense of hopelessness when there is no end to the conflict in sight. The graphic content flooding the media is additional stress experienced by civilians in both Gaza and Israel and could trigger post-traumatic stress responses for those struggling to process their losses. While citizen journalists who are posting commentary about the war do not consider ethical stakeholders, professional news organizations still maintain their obligation to have fair and diverse conversations before publishing photos and stories covering the war. "News organizations are constantly weighing their job to convey reality against the concern that violent images are too traumatizing for consumers to see. Too much can desensitize viewers. Yet sometimes the repetition – the ongoing grind of war – is a story in itself" (Bauder, 2023, para. 13). While news organizations can not control what external sources are sharing in the media, their readers and viewers need to be given the full reasoning and context behind publishing sensitive content from the war. "It's the entire reason for publishing the photo," (B. Sanchez, personal communication, 2023). "There's no reason to publish a photo that could be distressful or very sensitive unless there's incredibly good reasoning behind it." These conversations held in newsrooms impact those affected by the war virtually as well. According to Bauder, viewers expect immediate news coverage now that millions of people own phones with video cameras. "The reality is that audiences expect to participate in a shared viewing experience, to learn what is going on along with anchors and reporters," said Wendy McMahon, president of CBS News and Stations (Bauder, 2023, para. 9). News organizations have an obligation to their viewers to publish images, videos and stories of the Israel-Hamas war in a truthful, timely and ethical manner. And as previously mentioned, social media companies retain an obligation to their users' safety and privacy, meaning the consideration of ethical stakeholders is necessary to make decisions on which accounts and content to remove from their platforms.

Media professionals such as social media companies, editors and journalists have confronted issues similar to the current influx of graphic videos and images from the Israel-Hamas war in the past. Within news organizations, staff members routinely have discussions to weigh the options on whether to publish a violent or sensitive photo or not. "Newsrooms are made up of and should look like the community," (B. Sanchez, personal communication, 2023). "It' supposed to be these open conversations with people you don't agree with, but discuss how you cover it in a way that is fair."

News organizations have fought misinformation by encouraging the public to maintain media literacy and consume news from credible sources. Similar to what "CBS News Confirmed" has achieved by debunking false information using data and forensic journalism, AP Fact Check is the Associated Press' effort to respond to "widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online," (AP Fact Check, 2023). Fact-checking has historically been the heart of the Associated Press' mission to provide credible and truthful information that audiences can trust. In light of the recent misinformation about the latest Israel-Hamas war on social media, AP Fact Check is adhering to its obligation to counter falsehoods with the facts.

Outside of newsrooms, social networks and social media platforms have historically banned groups designated as extremist or terrorist organizations. "As the war unfolds, who can post such videos and what people can say about them will be determined in part by content moderation policies that vary widely from one social network to the next," (Oremus & Nix, 2023, para. 3). However, it is difficult to clearly define what is regarded as an extremist group and there have been disagreements over platforms' choices to ban certain political and public figures, groups and movements. This debate was evident when social media companies had to decide whether to continue to ban the Taliban after the United States withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 2021. "In the end, Facebook opted to prohibit the Taliban, while Twitter allowed the organization to maintain an official presence as the de facto government," (Oremus & Nix, 2023, para. 15).

To thoroughly address the ethical issues and questions at stake from the influx of graphic content and misinformation from the most recent Israel-Hamas war in the media, the case will be analyzed through the use of the TARES ethics model, which is used for personal decision-making. The TARES test will be used to analyze truthfulness, authenticity, respect, equity and social responsibility. This ethical theory is the most applicable and appropriate to the case because the factors such as truthfulness and authenticity are concerns relevant to the ethical stakeholders such as media consumers, news organizations, and social media companies. Ultimately, each section of the TARES test will be necessary in the consideration of whether the graphic images and videos circulating the media are essential to the truthful coverage of the war, or if the volume of content and misinformation that comes with it frames the issue as excessive and overly traumatic and stressful for the stakeholders.

Truthfulness is the heart of journalism and democracy. Without it, trust in public authorities flounders, hatred and deceit infiltrate communities and organized governments crumble. "Truth. It's more important than ever," echoes the New York Times. "Democracy Dies in Darkness," warns the Washington Post; with media consumers and journalists alike questioning the intentions and credibility of the videos and images being widely shared across social media and other digital platforms, the truthfulness must be analyzed. Since the sources of many of the shaky video clips and grainy images present on social media can't be identified, videos from past Israel-Palestine conflicts and protests from unrelated events are being passed off as current news, it can be concluded that the majority of the graphic content available on social media is not truthful. However, the images published by credible, professional news platforms with written captions and provided context are considered truthful.

After assessing the authenticity of the many different sources of the violent media, there are fluctuating motives behind the intended messages of the content illustrating the war. Since there is such a large volume of photos and videos to analyze, it is impossible to determine one type of authenticity that applies to all of the motives. On social media, some users intend to spread deceit, fear, or blatant misinformation through the posting of graphic content. Other people who are in support of either Palestinian or Israeli citizens may retain political or religious motives. The authenticity behind each photograph exists within a range depending on the motive and credibility of the image or video published. Ultimately, a large majority of the violent images circulating the media lack authenticity because of a lack of thoughtfulness and ethical consideration given before posting the content online. This assumption can be drawn from the volume and rate at which content is being produced during the war.

Respect for the subjects in sensitive and violent images must be considered as part of the ethical analysis. Overall, it appears that respect is absent for those suffering in the images and videos circulating on social media. As Sanchez noted, it can be easier to view and share harsh photos of people who come from different backgrounds and cultures when one disconnects their emotions and empathy from the suffering happening in an image. Additionally, there is a lack of respect for the media consumers using social media platforms and how the violent imagery could traumatize and hurt the viewers. However, it can be inferred that professional news organizations retain a greater level of respect for the subjects of the photos and videos and those who will see them due to the ethical conversations and thoughtfulness that go into the decision to publish a photo. Additionally, John Rawl' "Veil of Ignorance" can be applied to the equity of the messages behind the graphic content. Media consumers can lack media literacy and not seek out credible sources of news. This can lead individuals to ignorantly consume the graphic content flooding their social media feeds. Those posting and sharing graphic images on social media may also be ignorant of how it will impact their audience.

Lastly, the social responsibility analysis must be applied. Although news organizations can use some of the images and videos available online in their publications for news coverage, there is also potential for society to be emotionally harmed, traumatized, or further desensitized due to the overwhelming volume. Society would not necessarily be better off in the absence of all of the violent content available, But, if the misinformation levels and the quantity of images and videos decreased to only what was essential to news coverage of the events, these factors could increase media consumers' trust of news sources and genuine care for the human suffering taking place in each image.

After considering the issues of the case through analysis of truthfulness, authenticity, respect, equity and social responsibility through the TARES ethics model, a conclusion has been drawn. The utter disappearance of all graphic content flooding the media is unrealistic and would be harmful to news organizations' journalistic mission to completely and truthfully present coverage of the most recent Israel-Hamas war. However, the quantity of violent media available skews the power and ability of photographs to move and influence viewers, contributes to individuals' desensitization, and overwhelms and triggers those who are unprepared to view harsh images. Therefore, the volume and rate at which the graphic content is being spread online is unethical, excessive and traumatizing to media consumers. But, it is not completely unnecessary to the truthful coverage of the war. An individually focused vetting process and choosing to consume media from credible sources is recommended as the most ethical way to consume the significant volume of media available. Immediacy and accessibility are marks of the digital age, therefore as future tragedies and international conflicts such as the Israel-Hamas war take place, it can be assumed that similar influxes of images and videos will circulate the media again. "It' becoming increasingly more important for people individually to make their own decisions with the content they consume, and it' because we have so much content at our fingertips" (B. Sanchez, personal communication, 2023).

 

Works Cited

Ang, T. (2014). Photography: The Definitive Visual History (First American Edition). DK Publishing.

Bauder, D. (2023, November 13). For news organizations, the flood of Gaza war video is proving both illuminating and troubling. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/ai-gaza-war-video-media-news-c5e23399d190b3b1161eee90ee055ceb

CBS Launches Fact-Checking News Unit to Examine AI, Deepfakes. (n.d.). Variety. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from https://variety.com/2023/tv/news/cbs-launches-fact-checking-news-a-i-deepfakes-misinformation-1235781289/

Israel-Hamas war misinformation is everywhere. Here are the facts. (2023, November 2). AP News. https://apnews.com/article/israel-hamas-war-fact-check-e829d1dddcc2dad0f5f99cf62ef353ad

Mapping out the Israel-Hamas war. (2023, October 13). AP News. https://apnews.com/world-news/mapping-out-the-israel-hamas-war-0000018b286cd98aa18bea7efbdb0000

Oremus, W., & Nix, N. (2023, October 12). Graphic war videos go viral, testing social media's rules. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2023/10/11/tiktok-youtube-israel-hamas-content-moderation/

Schwartz, R., & published, T. W. U. (2023, October 19). Is AI thickening the fog of the Israel-Hamas war? Theweek. https://theweek.com/politics/is-ai-thickening-the-fog-of-the-israel-hamas-war

Simon, F. M., Altay, S., & Mercier, H. (2023). Misinformation reloaded? Fears about the impact of generative AI on misinformation are overblown. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review. https://doi.org/10.37016/mr-2020-127

 

  • Gabby Sherwood is a senior studying journalism with a minor in environmental studies at Baylor University. She will graduate in May 2024 with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism. 

 

Image by wirestock on Envato Elements.