Barbie Zelizer is the Raymond Williams Chair of Communication and the Director of the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
Her new book is About to Die: How News Images Move the Public.
From her Q & A with Slate's Jack Shafer:
Where did the modern taboos against depictions of the dead, the dying, and the potentially doomed come from? Fine art is filled with such images, some of them documentary in nature. Yet controversy greets every publication or broadcast of these pictures and videos. Why?--Marshal Zeringue
U.S. journalism has long been responsible for showing pictures of the dead and dying, but it's less comfortable doing so today than perhaps at any other time in its history. The taboo around death images, by which journalists could talk death in the news but not show it, was spawned by multiple developments: Changes in the larger political climate, an improved technology that made graphic images more attainable, heightened public sensitivity to the coverage of certain news topics, and changing conventions about how much human gore journalists could show and people would be willing to see all made journalism's discomfort with pictures of the dead and dying an integral part of contemporary journalism.
Reticence over pictures of the dead and dying wasn't always the case in journalism. During the early 20th century, when photography was a new technology inching its way into journalism, there was a collective eagerness to show the graphic images of death that validated the professionalization of news photographers and the immediacy of the news they provided.
But from the middle of the 20th century onward, that uniform excitement was progressively offset by other priorities and expectations. Still photos were no longer thought to offer the same kind of cutting-edge documentation, faster film and lenses intensified the graphic character of death images, wartime and political censorship became more of a prominent means of controlling images of death, and conventions about showing and viewing death were increasingly driven by a public sentiment that death in the news should remain unseen and non-graphic. Not only did this diminish much of the earlier celebration of journalism's death images, but it gave way to...[read on]