Showing on TV the horrific gunning down of Sophia Gathoni was unwise

NTV crew during a road show.

NTV crew during a road show. The arguments against the use of disturbing graphic images are based on journalism ethics.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

During prime time news at 9pm last Saturday, NTV Weekend Edition anchor Zainab Ismail screened a horrific 20-second CCTV footage. It showed a thug wearing a baseball cap and wielding a gun burst into an M-Pesa shop at Adams Arcade in Nairobi. It was shortly after 7 pm. The attendant, Sophia Gathoni, was preparing to close for the day. He pumped her with multiple bullets in cold blood, felling her as she screamed “Woi, woi, woi, Ngai.”

The graphic depiction of the gunning down of Sophia is akin to the publication of a close-up image of a dying woman, a victim of the terrorist attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall on September 21, 2013. The NMG apologised for the “poor judgement” in publishing the bloody picture on the front page of the Sunday Nation. “Kenyans, we made a poor judgement on our front page photo today. We sincerely apologise for the hurt caused,” said then-NMG CEO Linus Gitahi.

Graphic pictures depicting violence, blood and death should not be used if their newsworthiness is outweighed by the emotional harm they do to audiences. It is arguable that NTV should not have used the CCTV footage showing the actual killing to save Sophia’s children, relatives and friends from further emotional harm and trauma—particularly since the graphic depiction did not add value to the story. Journalists should always minimise harm to those affected by their stories.

Warning

Before showing the blood-curdling clip, a cool and collected Zainab said: “We wish to warn our viewers some of the pictures may be disturbing.” She was doing what most television stations do when they screen sensitive or disturbing images: They warn viewers that the content may be too graphic and emotionally disturbing.

The arguments against the use of disturbing graphic images are based on journalism ethics. Such images are inhumane and disrespectful of the victims and emotionally harmful to their families and friends. Imagine how traumatising and emotionally disturbing the CCTV footage has been to the children, relatives and friends of Sophia’s. It is available on YouTube as NTV news, forever reminding them of their loss. The footage gives them no room or time to heal.

Prepare audiences

TV stations argue that warnings prepare audiences for what is coming and save them from possible trauma or emotional upset. Forewarned, viewers can decide to stop or continue watching. But that hardly works in practice: The warnings do not give viewers enough warning or time to disengage.

Often, the warnings are just an excuse for the media to show something they should not be showing. It is unlikely viewers will stop viewing because they have been warned a few seconds before. Many see the warning as a bait to continue watching.

Why did NTV use the footage, even as they warned viewers? The NTV news editor can argue that the footage was necessary to show the stark reality of insecurity in the country. The shock value of the footage would help to call out the authorities to do something about the insecurity.

But that does not seem to have been the NTV plan. The CCTV footage was used, it appears, simply because it was available and would jazz up the news. The image was too ghastly for sensitive viewers and it did not help us to understand the insecurity situation in the country. It just haunts us.

When considering whether to use pictures that are too graphic, editors should ask themselves: What is the purpose of publishing such images? Do the images contain something the public needs to know? Do the images contribute to a better story or are, as the NMG editorial policy says, “justified by a clear and indisputable public interest”?

Editors can also use the rule of thumb often recommended for making such ethical decisions. The NTV editor should have asked: If the victim was my mother, wife, sister or close relative, would I use the clip showing the violent ending of their life? If the answer is no, then the pictures should not be used.


The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected] Call or text 0721989264

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