Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article on student journalists facing backlash for publishing a photo of a student in distress during a protest against a Jeff Sessions giving a speech on campus. The student called the photo “trauma porn” and the student newspaper took the picture off of twitter and issued an apology. The rest of the article goes on to discuss the limitations of student journalists and the journalistic norms that exist outside of a university “bubble” so to speak.
But the issue of trauma porn vs news is larger than just university papers. The article implies that posting similar images of brutalized bodies during a protest is fine in the journalistic world after college, but is it? The article does a good job of discussing the issue on campuses but neglects to bring up the real-world implications of this issue.
It is unlikely that college students are the only people that have issues with seeing themselves suffering plastered all over the news and social media. It’s not as simple as “kids these days are so sensitive”.
Part of the reason this may be popping up on college campuses more than anywhere else is simply because of the easy access to the student journalists. They’re not some name listed at the beginning of an article with a maybe tiny picture next to it, they’re the people you sit next to in the dining hall at 7am every day for 4ish~ years. Its a level of familiarity that allows you to say “hey colin why did you do this” that other protestors who have their equally brutal images shared do not get.
And then there’s the question of what purpose do these images serve. While they definitely make the point of showing readers exactly what is happening to certain groups or people or at certain events, why do images do something that descriptions can’t?
It’s undeniable that images hit differently than a description of events. There’s something undeniable about them that a lot of people need to see to “prove” that no one is lying, which is understandable to a degree I guess. But still, the idea that someone needs to see your bruised body to believe that you’re actually telling the truth is another issue.
The fact of the matter is that protestors are forced to give up their agency to their own image when they decide to protest. They cannot control the image, the public’s reception, or even what journalists are saying about the image. While some people may want their images publicized so that people can see what’s happening, it should not be assumed that everyone does.
This is all especially relevant now when protests around the world are becoming so commonplace, we need to set new standards of how we treat pictures people being brutalized by authorities. This is not suddenly a problem, if people are having an issue with it now than people had an issue with it in the decades before and something needs to change.
Protestors need to be able to decide for themselves whether they want their images publicized or not, and it should not be accepted as the “journalistic standard” to post any images regardless of the subjects feelings.