Doomed children gasp their last breaths in the back of a truck filled with lifeless bodies that could have been their playmates hours ago. Volunteers sprint back and forth in an attempt to salvage the remaining lives. And a camera witnesses it all, capturing video that the public won’t see for more than a month.
That was the scene shown Tuesday, when CNN showed horrific footage of the April 4 chemical weapons attack in Syria’s Northern Idlib province. The footage, revealed to the public for the first time, was accompanied by a warning and a clear argument in favor of its publication by CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward.
“We felt it was vital to show you these images because when you’re watching these children gasping their last breaths, you finally really understand what a war crime is,” Ward said.
CNN’s disclosure of the video raises questions about the justification for exposing viewers to such harrowing footage. Below, Poynter’s Al Tompkins and Newmark Chair for Journalism Ethics Indira Lakshmanan sound off on CNN’s decision, and what lessons it holds for journalists elsewhere.
Indira Lakshmanan, Newmark Chair for Journalism Ethics
“If it bleeds, it leads.” That’s the rap on the tabloid press and ratings-hungry local newscasts, though the truth is that most TV news directors and print and digital editors and publishers struggle almost daily with how to show graphic and disturbing images that are newsworthy and in the public interest without being gratuitous or repelling their audiences.
It isn’t a new struggle, either. From the skeletal forms of World War II concentration camp survivors to the bodies of Black civil rights activists beaten by police like dogs; from terrified Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm attack to people jumping to their deaths from the blazing World Trade towers, the iconic images are seared in our collective memories and sometimes have changed the course of history by altering our government’s actions or triggering mass public outcry.
The difference now is that in the digital age, photographs and videos can be easily captured, shared and spread online and on social media by anyone at warp speed — often faster than news organizations can verify their authenticity.
The six-year-old Syrian civil war that the United Nations estimated a year ago had already claimed 400,000 lives is the latest example of a hugely consequential news story that has pushed the question of what to show and when to show it.
In August 2013, the debate was over the chemical attacks in Ghouta, which a U.N. investigation concluded were unleashed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, killing hundreds of civilians, including children. The images were arresting: row after row of small corpses lined up, children’s arms folded over their bodies as if they were sleeping, never to awake.
Global outrage ensued. Then-President Barack Obama vowed to strike Assad in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, which world conventions have deemed a war crime. But when Obama sensed he wouldn’t win support from Congress for a U.S. attack, he backed down and negotiated a deal meant to remove the chemical weapons instead.
Two years later, the world was riveted by a heartbreaking photo of a three-year-old Syrian refugee whose family tried to flee the war for Canada. Their boat capsized and Alan Kurdi’s body, clad in a red shirt, blue pants and brown sneakers like any toddler in the world, washed up drowned on the beach in Turkey. The photo ran on front pages around the world. Still, the war raged on.
Last August, another Syrian boy, 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, his expression shell-shocked and his face caked in dust from a mortar attack, was photographed in the back of an ambulance, and his image became a stand-in for the suffering of an estimated 100,000 trapped in the brutal siege of Aleppo. The world expressed horror again, and still, little changed.
Which brings us to now: the latest images of the April gas attack that killed more than 80 people, according to the BBC. Western intelligence agencies blamed Assad, who denied it. It was horrific photographs of children foaming at the mouth, contorted as they died that President Donald Trump said prompted him to respond with 59 Tomahawk missiles aimed at Syrian government targets and take the decision, revealed today, to arm Syrian Kurdish rebels. Here we saw what appears to be a direct path from an apparent war crime to U.S. action.
So today, as video footage has emerges of the April gas incident, how should newsrooms grapple with what to show? As in every case, we weigh the newsworthiness of the footage against the harm that showing the images might cause. There’s no doubt that the images are of great importance; it was these pictures that exposed an apparent war crime and provoked action by the U.S. government that affected Syrian government assets, the deployment of American military assets, U.S. military planning — and perhaps may affect the future course of the war.
The public has the right to know as much as possible about an incident with such far-reaching human, legal and budgetary implications.
Whether those images belong on page one or at the top of the newscast is another question. I would argue they don’t because we already saw the photographs in April. I would make the images available to an online audience that can choose to watch or not to watch, preceded by an explicit warning that the video is not for the faint-hearted.
Ideally the video should be accompanied by narration and explanation of the news organization’s decision, much as CNN has done with its online package narrated by correspondent Clarissa Ward, who admonishes us that we are watching evidence of a war crime.
As a former foreign correspondent, I know it can hard for audiences to stomach the faraway and often unimaginable suffering of victims of wars in Bosnia or Afghanistan or human rights abuses in Haiti or North Korea. But that doesn’t absolve us of our duty as journalists to try to help people understand — and to give them reasons not to look away.
Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcasting and online
It can be vital for the public to witness graphic images. When images of the Syrian gas attack were first made available to the public in April, they were newsworthy evidence that the war on civilians was escalating and pointed to possible involvement on Russia’s part.
After the first images of the April attack emerged, Syria President Bashar al-Assad denied his regime was behind the attack and in fact called the reports of a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun a total fabrication. In that context, the initial use of those images was not only defensible — it was needed, because they offered essential conflicting evidence
Now, a month later, the video that CNN obtained magnifies our understanding of the horrors of gas attacks. But I would argue that they do not give us enough new information to justify their use on television or a newspaper page. We have no doubt that more than 90 people died. There is no doubt that many of them were children. We have no doubt they were killed with chemical weapons. These are already established facts.
If I was a newspaper editor, I would not place the stark images of those dying children on the front page Wednesday morning. If I ran a local TV station, I would not use the images because they do not shed enough new light on what’s happening in Syria to offset the graphic nature of the images.
Online, CNN made the good decision to minimize the potential harm of the images by warning viewers of their graphic nature. Allowing Ward — with her years of experience covering Syria — to explain why CNN believes the images are important enough to put before the public was a good step. Online, readers can make a choice about whether or how much to watch — unlike TV viewers or newspaper readers, who can’t choose the images on the network.
Journalists have faced these tough calls from Syria for years. In 2015, “60 Minutes” aired video of what it said was chemical attacks that killed 1,400 people. That video was from two years earlier, and Assad claimed there was no proof that his government had gassed civilians.
The “60 Minutes” story sought to confirm the presence of poison gas, and anchor Scott Pelley defended the graphic images, saying,”these kinds of things happen in the world too often” because “people don’t see them.”
Remember that every decision to publish or withhold requires a new conversation about “why.” Just because a network has published such images in the past is not a reason to make the same decision today — just as a decision not to publish or air disturbing images before should not mean we would never publish such images again.
We live in a time when some readers and viewers will smell a conspiracy in any decision that journalists make to show or withhold information or images. Journalists should explain their decisions, as CNN did.