Journalists split over censoring war’s horrors

The Falling Soldier: Robert Capa’s photo from 1936 became iconic of the Spanish Civil War.

Reporters and photographers risk their lives to report news from the world’s front lines, but what they bring back can be truly horrifying. Do we need to know and see every upsetting detail?

As the first town liberated after D-Day landings in 1944 and home to the famous tapestry recording the bloody story of the 1066 Norman Conquest of England, the French town of Bayeux would seem a suitable place for remembering war and its horrors.

But when the town hosted an award ceremony for war reporters last week, even veteran journalists were left asking if an award-winning photo was simply too shocking to be seen.

The picture won the ‘public choice’ award. It showed four Syrian soldiers being brutally decapitated by Islamists last year and it haunts Emin Ozmen, the photographer who took it. ‘I did not want to look,’ he said in a trembling voice after winning the award.

Reporters regularly risk their lives to report from highly dangerous places. Journalist Marie Colvin said that while the governments give sanitised reports of pinpoint missile strikes on enemy targets, reporters must show war's human cost: ‘Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies’. She was killed in Syria in 2012.

While photos give us a ‘window’ into war’s atrocities, they can also be misleading. When Libyan rebels were pushing for western intervention in 2011, they released pictures of soldiers supposedly executed by their own government. It emerged later that the rebels most likely committed the massacre.

There are also arguments over how much violence the public should see. While the British media were criticised for not showing enough of the horror of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Qatari channel al-Jazeera regularly aired graphic footage of civilian deaths. The US accused it of trying to turn the public against the war.

With the rise of social media, images of war atrocities have become harder to avoid regardless of what is shown by mainstream news channels. Eyewitnesses upload pictures of bodies and videos of massacres in troublespots just moments after they happen. Users are exposed to horrors in their social media feeds before they can look away.

Savage spectacle

Some say that the media’s constant stream of violence has deadened us to its horrors. Extreme images make us less likely to try to work for good in the world as the suffering appears too vast and overwhelming to be stopped. While war is horrific, it does not have to greet us at every turn.

Yet writer Susan Sontag says it is vital that we confront what humans are capable of. Graphic images like that of children fleeing from airstrikes in the Vietnam War become the lens through which we view larger events that might otherwise seem abstract. Such images are meant to haunt us and remind us that, while upsetting for the viewer, they capture the horrors suffered by real people to which we have a duty to respond.

You Decide

  1. Should we be shown graphic scenes of the horrors of war in the media? What limits should there be?
  2. ‘Those who refuse to be confronted by horrific images of war have not yet reached moral or psychological adulthood.’ Do you agree?


  1. In groups, read the story again and find three reasons in favour of being exposed to war’s horrors, and three reasons why we shouldn’t be.
  2. Language can be a powerful tool for conveying horrific events or sanitising them. Imagine an atrocity that happens in war, and try to write about it at three levels of graphic detail. Which do you think is the most appropriate and why?

Some People Say...

“The internet has desensitised us to the world’s true horrors.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about war reporting?
Because the images and footage of war contained in news reports are vital for letting us know and understand what is going on in the world, sometimes on your behalf. However if the images are too shocking, they might upset you. It is important not to be ignorant of the realities of war, but at the same time, constant exposure to suffering is unhealthy. Finding a balance is not easy.
Why do journalists go into warzones?
War reporting is highly dangerous and at least 2,300 journalists have been killed in warzones since 1945. Many journalists say they feel a need to get to the heart of a story and report on suffering that people in peaceful countries might otherwise not understand. Yet many reporters are left scarred by what they have witnessed.

Word Watch

The D-Day Landing was the largest seaborne invasion in history. On 6 June 1944, 24,000 Allied soldiers landed in northern France beginning the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered cloth nearly 50m long, shows the battle – and the events leading up to the Norman conquest.
The West aided rebels in Libya to overthrow the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It was hoped Libya would become a peaceful democracy, but it remains torn by warring factions vying for power.
After the 9/11 attacks, the US and UK invaded Afghanistan, which had been harbouring al-Qaeda, and then Iraq, which was thought to possess weapons of mass destruction.
The American writer wrote a highly influential book, Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she outlines many of the ambiguities and difficulties of war photography.
Nick Ut’s photograph of terrified children fleeing from a napalm strike during the Vietnam War in 1972 has become one of the most famous images of the conflict.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.