News Images Of War: Suggestions To Facilitate A Meaningful Audience Response

How often, when people look for information, do they turn to images? In almost every online search, the resulting information is accompanied by an image. Whether it is a story on your newsfeed, an online article, a book or an organization’s website⁠—information and images are intertwined. When engaging with political events, images are persistent sources of information. As readers of global news, our inquisitive eyes are almost always met by images of catastrophe or crisis.

In recent headlines, articles have depicted protestors in Hong Kong, oil tankers exploding in the Gulf of Oman, and political violence in Sudan. In each case, to a certain extent, the article depends on the image to bring the story to life. News images enable readers to make sense of political events through a visual cue. When a reporter announces, “the humanitarian situation in X is of great international concern”, images of explosions, screaming civilians and immense suffering are what make the event known to the viewer.

Historically, images of war have depicted soldiers, battlefields and militaries. Today, images of war depict explosions, civilians, demolished cities and humanitarian crises. As such, images of war are exclusively presented as images of distant pain and suffering. Although the circulation of images of war holds educational value, as they expose human rights abuses and raise awareness of political violence, it is important to acknowledge the problems that arise when images of obliterated bodies and screaming victims are distributed on a global scale.

The problem with this framing is that images of war present a reality that is usually incomprehensible for the audience, and this limits their responsiveness to the image. When people see images of war, they say, “Oh isn’t it awful”. The viewer appears shocked, disgusted, saddened, disturbed. Yet, minutes later a different story appears on the television, or the reader clicks on another link to another article and the image goes away. The problem is gone. Here, the phrase, “out of sight, out of mind” is entirely appropriate. Are people really concerned when they see an image of humanitarian crisis? Do they look away from the images of annihilated bodies? If they look, how long would they look for? How long does the image of suffering really affect or concern them for?

The paradox is that, there remains a duty to inform a global audience of political violence, humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses, but due to the normality of images of war, people are no longer shocked⁠—and if they are, it doesn’t last very long⁠—, so the circulation of such images somewhat limits the audiences’ ability to generate a meaningful response. Audiences become all too easily desensitized to the horror of violence.

Images of war only have a short-term impact on the targeted audience. Besides, temporary impact means the issue is only thought about for a brief moment. War is depicted as something which is inevitable, and people cannot do anything to stop it. The image prompts immediate shock, and then life continues as usual. Whether this is due to feelings of hopelessness or apathy, there needs to be an approach to war-reporting that engages audiences to the point that they no longer feel powerless or uninterested. Only when this is achieved, can a meaningful response to war and conflict be realized.

In a similar sense, international responses to images of war are usually expressed through the condemnation of the violent actions of an actor, state or organization. Images of war may encourage monetary donations to humanitarian organizations providing aid or assistance in the affected regions. Yet, even so, money does not equate to political will. Without dismissing the generosity of those who donate to aid organizations or conflict resolution, this is the easy option. Active engagement with war and violence is a commitment that most people do not want to make. It requires time, effort and resources that most people don’t have. However, it is essential for people to campaign, contest and challenge war

The key challenge is how images of war can be circulated in order to educate and raise awareness of war and violence, whilst simultaneously ensuring the images encourage meaningful responses from the audience. There are several possible solutions.

First, a progressive change would be for war reporting to not simply expose the devastating parts of conflict. If audiences are going to view societies impacted by war less as victims and more as people, it would make sense to circulate images not exclusively depicting death, destruction and violence. By reporting the more hidden aspects of war, for instance, stories of everyday life, news images could reach audiences on a personal level. Narratives of this kind would give voice to populations affected by war, enabling them to speak and explain their experiences, without romanticizing their everyday existence. Demonstrating how war impacts peoples’ everyday lives could inspire audiences to engage with the fundamental issues at stake, as opposed to diverting their gaze away from a shocking news report. For a meaningful audience response, which involves people taking action and openly contesting war⁠—whether by way of protest, signing a petition, producing written content, or discussing issues in their communities⁠—, then news reports should consider depicting images of war which do not exclusively concern injury and death.

Second, in an ideal world, another potential solution would be to establish an international watchdog to regulate the images of war circulated by news organizations across the globe. As there is something valuable about images of war, due to their ability to expose injustice and inform audiences about conflict and crisis, it would be wrong to suggest prohibiting them altogether. Moreover, the rise of the internet and social media means that images of violent wars are everywhere online and prohibition would be impossible to enforce. Having an international body that governs the content could provide a better response to the perils of war, as audiences may become engaged in the fundamental issues with political violence. From this stance, news images would not only expose parts of war the viewer understands as normal, for instance, bombs, explosions, artillery and the military. This proposal is not an attempt to dismiss or conceal the severity of these forms of violence, but to generate greater responsiveness to war as a violent practice that infiltrates all aspects of life. Although the possibility of a governing body currently seems unattainable due to the prominence of the internet, the content of news organizations could be regulated, and news companies could be held accountable if dispersing images that aim to shock audiences.

A third possibility is that each news report or article that reports a war or conflict, provides direction for further engagement. Perhaps advice could be given for a way to actively do something about the violence: not simply donating money to a humanitarian organization, but advice as to how people can protest, or directions to further websites or petitions. People need advice as to how to do something that will enforce meaningful change and contest war as a practice, not just become spectators to the violent actions of others.

It is the actions such as these which may gain the attention of the desensitized public rather than yet another brief few minutes of familiar images of horror before they reach for the remote in the search for more entertainment elsewhere. If war is to be meaningfully responded to by a global audience, then the news images which govern current reactions to war must be reviewed, reconsidered, and if possible—regulated.

Olivia Abbott