The Current

'We don't see the reality of what bullets do to bodies': Should images of school shootings be public?

While some argue that releasing images from school shootings might end a sense of ambivalence among the public, others argue that it would be an invasion of privacy for victims and their families.
Students are evacuated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last week. (WPLG-TV via AP)

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Readers and listeners are warned that they may find elements of this story disturbing

When Veronique Pozner's six-year-old son Noah was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, she took the governor of Connecticut to see his open casket.

"I felt that it was a way for him to process the enormity of what had happened," she said, "and be able to see firsthand the permanence and the horror of it."

"I felt that in his position, as a lawmaker, that he would be able to somehow impact change."

In the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Fla., last week, there have been calls to publish graphic images from crimes like these, to hammer home the enormity of the issue, and shock the public out of ambivalence.

But Pozner isn't convinced that's the answer.

"I think there might be some benefit to releasing them to perhaps a small circle of lawmakers," she told The Current's guest host Catherine Cullen.

"I don't know that there would be any benefit for them to be released for public consumption. I think it may appeal to some of the more ghoulish elements in our society."

The images that get reported from the scenes of school shootings do not show the extent of the horror, said one researcher. (Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

In the years since that atrocity in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, she has seen some changes within the state, but wants more to be done at a federal level.

"It's just not good enough to go state-by-state," she said.

"As the events of last week have shown this can happen just about anywhere and there's no predictability as to what the next soft target might be: a school, a movie theatre, or a church."

'We don't see the carnage'

The power of an image is part of Nicole Dahmen's life's work — she is an associate professor who studies the ethics of photojournalism at the school of journalism and communication at the University of Oregon.

She has recently published research on images published by newspapers in the wake of school shootings, and found that the images we see are sanitized.

Survivors of Gun Violence in America

Kathy Shorr is a freelance photographer whose latest book is called Shot: 101 Survivors of Gun Violence in America. She worked collaboratively with her subjects, in an effort to show the world the extent of the violence and damage that guns can wreak.

"I looked at 5,000 photographs from three school shootings, one of which was Sandy Hook," she said. "And we are not seeing graphic images of school shootings."

"Of those 5,000 photos, only 5 per cent could be characterized as graphic in nature. Those were visibly injured victims at the scene and those were always outside of the scenes, so being loaded into ambulances."

"We are not seeing that carnage and the reality of what bullets do to bodies."

There were protests outside the court where the suspected Florida gunman appeared on Thursday, Feb. 15, in Fort Lauderdale. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald via AP)

Images can provide an emotional, visceral reaction that words often don't, she said. But that effect is often short-lived.

"Images by themselves cannot change the world," she said.

"A photograph, no matter how emotionally shocking and no matter how horrific, can only do so much."

Releasing graphic images from an atrocity might not be beneficial, she warned, as it could add to the suffering of a victim's family, re-invading their privacy and extending their grief.

She also notes that with the internet and modern media, violent imagery is already all around us.

"My concern is that those images will not be given the respect and attention they deserve," she said.

"We might feel that horror for a second and then we get caught up in whatever else we had going on."

Tipping point

Pozner feels a tipping point is coming, but that right now people have a black and white outlook on gun control. Even Sandy Hook was unable inspire significant discussion. 

"When 20 babies and six educators are slaughtered in a school — these children were six- and seven-years-old — that didn't do a whole lot, at least on the national level, to [bring about] change."

"As a matter of fact there was an uptick in gun sales after the event," she said, "because people were panicking… they were not going to have the same freedom of access."

Student survivors of Florida school shooting plead for change at gun control rally

6 years ago
Duration 0:53
Thousands of people attended a rally in Florida on Saturday calling on the U.S. government to bring in gun control measures.

After Florida, Dahmen has noted something new: the students who survived the shooting are making their voices heard through social media.

"It's something that we haven't seen before in this really difficult cycle… that we're in."

"We have these high school students standing up and showing us courage, resilience, and resistance."

"And it may be that these images, of their voices, of holding elected leaders accountable may end up being far more powerful than any graphic image," she said, "because… these graphic images are just sort of lost in a sea of trauma."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's  Alison Maseman, Kori Sidaway, and Geoff Turner.