Warning: This is Graphic

On April 4 all three networks reported on the Syrian chemical attack showing extremely graphic and upsetting images. When the story aired, the attack had killed 58 civilians and wounded about 300.

The story combines complex foreign relations and unfathomable acts of violence.

Each network introduced the story differently

ABC anchor David Muir began:

“We are going to begin tonight with the images that have stunned the world. It is hard to imagine that after six years of war in Syria that there could be something even worse than what many have already seen.”

Then Muir warned:

“Tonight, our team has taken great care to pore through the images first, but we warn you, they are still difficult to see.” 

ABC then showed young children being sprayed with water.

ABC News 4/4/2017

ABC News 4/4/2017

“A chemical attack – so many families and children among the victims,” said David Muir as the clip played. “These are some of the young ones who’ve survived being sprayed off, hosed down after war planes dropped what appeared to be a toxic gas.”

Muir, shown in the studio, continued “The White House is responding tonight and ABC’s Jonathan Karl leading us off.”

The first image of Karl’s story is below.

ABC News 4/4/2017

NBC anchor Lester Holt began with an update on the North Korean missile launches and then continued saying:

“But our top story tonight takes us to another troubled spot overseas: Syria. The world reacting with horror and revulsion to the apparent poisoned gas attack that has killed dozens of civilians and sickened dozens more.

“Many of them small children. The White House is tonight pointing the finger of blame at Syrian President Assad, but also calling out the Obama administration suggesting if it had stood up to Assad during its watch this might not have happened.

“Now the question is, is President Trump willing to step in?”

While Holt introduced the story, these images showed.

NBC News 4/4/2017

NBC News 4/4/2017

NBC News 4/4/2017

NBC News 4/4/2017

NBC News 4/4/2017

Holt continued, “A word of caution, there are some upsetting images in this report, Richard Engel has the latest.”

The same images were repeated on screen until NBC switched to Engel’s reporting.

Below is the first image of Engel’s story.

NBC 4/4/2017

CBS also started with the story.

“Even by the horrors of the Syrian civil war, what happened today will stand out as a crime against humanity,” said anchor Scott Pelley while the image below showed.

CBS 4/4/2017

“Fifty-eight civilians including women and children were killed,” said Pelley.

“And about 300 others wounded by what appears to be nerve gas, a weapon banned by the civilized world.”

CBS 4/4/2017

“The attack came five days after the Trump administration signaled that the Syrian dictator would not be held accountable for the slaughter of his people,” he added.

CBS 4/4/2017

“The Trump administration said Bashar Al-Assad could remain in power, a reversal of Obama era policy that said Assad had to go,” said Pelley while showing pictures of Assad. “Despite the appeasing change in his policy, Mr. Trump blamed today’s attack on President Obama calling it a ‘consequence of the past administration’s weakness.’”

Pelley continued, “What we are about to show you is hard to watch, but it should be seen.”

CBS followed with this image.

CBS News 4/4/2017

The ABC and NBC introductions gave little information about politics. CBS provided greater detail of the political landscape.

CBS’s first image after a word of caution is graphic and upsetting. ABC and NBC began the stories with milder images.

Margaret Sullivan, Media Columnist for the Washington Post, weighed in on the responsibility of providing a warning.

“What’s the point of saying these images are upsetting and you may want to look away, if you don’t give people the opportunity to do that,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan noted that all news media must make tough decisions when handling graphic material:

“There are decisions that are made all the time…in the newspaper world [about] where to display something, which could make a big difference. Are you going to put a really tough image at the top of the homepage? Or are you going to have to dig into the story to find it? And similarly, are you going to put a really tough image at the top of the front page of the paper? Or inside?”

According to Sullivan, these decisions boil down to competing values:    

“You are weighing competing values which are the strong responsibility to tell the news as it is…against…community or reader…or viewer sensibilities…You don’t want to offend people so where do you draw the line? Because you can be sure that there is a line somewhere.”

It depends on how far the news organization pushes the boundaries, she said:

“You are going to draw the line somewhere and it’s just a question of where you’re going to draw it. And probably 20 years ago it would have been in a more conservative place and now it’s become… more acceptable to show things that are really difficult to look at but not everything.”

Sullivan explained the power of video:

“There is a great power in these images and voices and as members of the media we have to be really aware of that.”

Ilana Bernstein

Ilana Bernstein

Ilana Bernstein is a junior pursuing a double degree in broadcast journalism and theatre at the University of Maryland, College Park. Ilana has interned for Girls’ Life Magazine and has had numerous articles published online. She was featured in the magazine. Ilana is a staff reporter for The Writer’s Bloc, an online publication that focuses on arts, culture and politics. Ilana has a passion for travel and community service and has worked with inmates at a prison in Connecticut, visited Estonia and Latvia, and visited with people previously on death row in New Orleans. Ilana can be reached at: ilanab@terpmail.umd.edu

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