Accident Photo Ethics

sheboygan image.

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A news photo can tell a powerful story, and it can cause pain.

Journalists know this, and they usually follow guidelines to guard against posting photos that might be disturbing or shocking.

The editor of a small daily newspaper in central Illinois acknowledged that, but wanted to know how immediate they should be. Journalists often pride themselves on being first with the news, with competition being one of the reasons for immediacy. But it’s not that simple.

“There’s been a debate in our newsroom about how soon we should post online pictures of potentially fatal accidents,” said the editor. “Although we’re small, so is the community. A large proportion of our readers either follow us online — or will see what we post when it’s shared.

Our standards

“We often arrive at the scene of bad accidents nearly as quickly as rescue workers, and our policy has been to post photos from the scene on our website and link to them from Facebook and Twitter. Editors always check the photos before posting to make sure they adhere to our standards – no blood, no bodies or other graphic imagery. Although damage done to the vehicle can be shown, we do not show license plates.

“Some readers feel that in a small community, vehicles can be identified  by relatives. So, this may be how they learn that a loved one has been involved in a possibly fatal wreck. Whenever we post such pictures there are many who complain online and in calls to the newsroom that we are out of line and that we should remove the photos. There have been an increasing number of readers who chime in to say that the photos have news value and that we are doing what newspapers are supposed to do.


“No one in our newsroom questions the news value of the photos or suggests that they should not be published in the paper. But some say that the posting of photos that show any portion of a vehicle should be delayed – perhaps by an hour or two, until families can be notified about a fatal accident. During that delay we could post photos that show backed up traffic, or that focus only on emergency vehicles.

“I disagree. The photos with the strongest news value should be posted. Showing the severity of a wreck is the information we have at that moment, and as long as the photo complies with the standards above, it should be used. The idea that someone might identify the make of a vehicle as belonging to a loved one seems too tenuous to withhold a photo that otherwise has news value. It’s a small town, but there are plenty of people driving the same make of vehicle. Can’t it be said we’re assuring people that their relative is safe because he drives a different vehicle than the one in the picture? When all other detail is lacking, that information at least can be shared.

Other views

“I’m open to hearing other views. One reporter who grew up in this area gets some particularly nasty feedback when his byline is on such photos. That harsh treatment from his own friends and acquaintances affects him – but to his credit, he still provides the photos for editors to choose from.”

AdviceLine does not offer easy answers to tough ethics issues. Through a conversation, AdviceLine advisors try to guide journalists to a decision based on standards of professional journalism practices, taking into consideration the perspectives of all parties involved while using clear and careful ethical thinking.

“A discussion needs to be held,” said the advisor.”Ethical behavior is not always black and white. Have you considered the fact that your small community might have a different culture, so to speak, than larger communities?

Greater good

“Consider if you are acting for the ‘greater good.’ Do those photos do more good than harm? If you think of the quantity versus quality argument, perhaps the news value of these accident photos does not have the quality that the community expects from the news people in your organization (such as the photographer who gets nasty comments.)

“I believe if you and your staff meet and discuss clearly what this dilemma is, what the alternatives are to this situation and why you do what you do (justification for your actions), you will be able to explain this to your readers.

Able to explain

“Then, when you are on the same page after your discussion — because this is very important when community members complain about what the newspaper has done, all staff members need to be able to explain — even if you stick to the same standards you already have in place. You as the editor should write an editorial explaining why the newspaper does what it does. Take the time to explain to your readers why you do what you do whenever you can.

“So, I am not telling you what to do, but I am telling you what to discuss so you and your staff can explain to your readers. I think this is important because it shows that you care enough about them to write to them.”


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

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