See no evil. Except when we need to

Sometimes the cost of not showing something horrific is too high. Would gun legislation move faster if people could see the violence of Uvalde and other mass shootings? Center director Jeffrey Cole explores.

By Jeffrey Cole

The news coming out of Uvalde, Texas in late May was horrific. Nineteen elementary school children and two teachers were murdered by a lone, crazed gunman. Only by entering the deep recesses of a diseased soul of unimaginable evil could we understand how someone could tell a 10-year-old “it is time to die,” then look into their eyes and pull the trigger.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, reporters told the stories of the twenty-one human beings who did not make it out of the classroom. Earlier in the day, several of the fourth graders had been honored at a ceremony for academic distinction. Parents shared heartbreaking details of the lives of the children they would never see again.

From the same reporters we learned of the damage that an AR-15 assault weapon does to a human body. It is manufactured not just to stop someone but to inflict irreparable damage, making recovery nearly impossible. It tears the body apart so much that the families could not make visual identification of the remains.

Instead, the authorities had to rely on DNA and clothing to identify loved ones. The images we conjured in our minds were so devastating that it has led to the first bi-partisan discussion of even minor revisions to gun laws and policies in twenty years.

To accelerate that discussion and to move even gun rights advocates off the fence, some journalists have argued that the pictures and videos of broken bodies, so mangled that even their parents would not recognize them, should be shown to the public.

Our first reaction is to recoil in disgust at the thought of seeing mutilated victims of violence, especially children. “Who would ever do that? Think of the parents!” But by sanitizing or eliminating the horrendous images, we are not comprehending the full consequences of the violence. We may even rationalize that “it couldn’t be that bad.”

Let’s look at violence in movies and television.

Entertainment has always been and continues to be filled with violence. Stories with violent themes and images have dominated from the very beginning. For three years in the 1990s, at the request of the four broadcast networks and several U.S. Senators, I studied television violence and made recommendations to the broadcasters, parents, and government. Our first year’s report was shared at a joint press conference with President Bill Clinton in October of 1996.

We learned that television is filled with an enormous amount of violence. But since those images come into the home where they can be seen during mealtimes, or by young children, broadcasters feel the images must be softened or sanitized.

But that very process, to protect viewers, may make violence feel less horrible. If every act of violence shakes us to our very core, some may become reticent to ever consider resorting to violence.

Joseph Wambaugh’s perspective

Joseph Wambaugh served in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for 14 years, rising from patrolman to detective sergeant in the Hollenbeck Division, one of the most violent in the city. He went on to become a successful author and television producer of stories about police work and crime. His books include The New Centurions and The Onion Field. Both were best-sellers, later made into acclaimed motion pictures.

As a patrolman, he was frequently the first one on the scene after a shooting. The carnage he found is unimaginable to those who have never seen it and unforgettable to those who have. Rookie cops, showing up to their first shooting, often keel over in revulsion and vomit: they see massive amounts of blood, flesh torn apart with intestines, or brain matter spilling out of the body.

I apologize for these descriptions, but this is the point: we don’t know what it is like unless we have seen the real thing.

People who have witnessed shootings at close range report that thirty years later they cannot get the images out of their mind.

Our first reaction is to recoil in disgust at the thought of seeing mutilated victims of violence, especially children. “Who would ever do that? Think of the parents!” But by sanitizing or eliminating the horrendous images, we are not comprehending the full consequences of the violence. We may even rationalize that “it couldn’t be that bad.”

Television could never show that to audiences about to begin dinner. Unlike what Wambaugh witnessed on the streets as a patrolman, television violence typically depicts someone getting shot, usually in the chest, with either no blood or a red spot about the size of a baseball. Then, they either say some dramatic last words before dying or are next seen in the hospital recuperating.

Because we rarely see how truly awful gun violence is, the sanitized images may make it somewhat less awful. Many police officers have said to producers, “if you are going to depict gun violence, show it as it really is so everyone understands the consequences.”

“If you show it, really show it” works beyond television

Emmet Till was a 14-year-old African American from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi in the summer of 1955. He was abducted, tortured, and lynched by a group of white men because they thought (incorrectly) he had whistled at a local white woman.

Like the students at Uvalde, what remained of Till’s body was unrecognizable. His mother, wanting the world to see what racism had done to her boy, insisted on an open-casket funeral with his bloated, mutilated body visible for all to see. The leading magazines of that era carried the pictures. The world was shocked at the image of how horribly the body was damaged. That outrage led to demand for action that many consider the opening act of the Civil Rights Movement (Rosa Parks was later that same year).

Another case, this one fictional, comes from the 1991 film Grand Canyon. Steve Martin portrays an action-film movie director (a deliberate irony) who is shot in the leg. Unlike what is typically shown in media, the shooting is realistic, close to what Wambaugh witnessed as a policeman. There is a massive amount of unstoppable blood as he goes into shock and urinates on himself. It is traumatic to watch, and yet it is not even close to a life-threatening wound. Thirty-one years later most who saw the movie could not tell you much about the story but clearly remember Steve Martin getting shot.

Does this mean that entertainment media and news should always show violence as it really is, no matter how nauseating or how much it shocks the audience? Of course not. If that kind of violence were realistically portrayed all the time, we would, by necessity, become desensitized.

But in a small number of cases (like Emmett Till), showing the consequences of violence can leave an indelible image that leads to real change.

Coming in a year with mass shootings occurring more than once a day and little hope of passing restrictions on the worst guns and their easy availability, the images of mutilated bodies, unrecognizable as little children, may be the catalyst that opens a much-needed national debate across the political spectrum.

Graphic images of unimaginable violence sometimes need to be seen but only in rare and extraordinary circumstances.

Uvalde is one of those instances.


Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

June 22, 2022