ISIS beheadings, plane crashes: Why we should avoid images that can't be 'unseen'

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy

As graphic videos and violent photos become part of our daily routines, how can we cope? We turned to psychologists and newspersons for advice. (Photo: Getty Images)

Lying in bed last night, unable to sleep, I turned to my usual routine: Scrolling through Twitter and skimming news sites, looking to see what’s happening in time zones where the sun has already risen.

Which is when I learned of the horrific crash of the TransAsia Airways flight departing Taiwan that crashed into the Keelung River shortly after taking off in Taipai — and was hit with an instant, up-close video of the crash itself, an incident that has already taken at least 25 lives. Of the flight’s 58 passengers, 18 are still missing.

I shut the browser window of my phone as quickly as I could. I did not want to see this video.

And yet I did want to read about the incident. I felt obligated to know what was going on, to not barricade myself from the pain of others. But I didn’t want to hawk at suffering in its most raw form.

“Truly shocking images are like many kinds of traumatic events,” Art Markman, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Texas, tells Yahoo Health. “They create a tear in the fabric of the viewer’s life similar to what happens when that person is the victim of a crime or experiences a death in the family.”

Yesterday, we were faced with the decision of whether to watch the horrific burning death of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, the Jordanian pilot captured by ISIS. But earlier this week, while scrolling through my Facebook feed I was denied the opportunity to choose what I did and did not want to see; a distant relative had posted an image of the recent beheading by ISIS of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto. I snapped my computer shut as quickly as possible. 

But still, I knew what I had seen.

“If you are exposed to images like this, it is important to give yourself time to talk about them with other people and perhaps even to write about them,” adds Markman, “That will help you to weave these images into a narrative that helps you make sense of them so that they will not cause stress or anxiety.”

Do we need to force ourselves to ingest these kinds of images to be able to truly understand them?

Being subjected to traumatic images such as these raises interesting questions for anyone who considers themselves to be an active citizen in the world: Can we truly empathize — yet alone be informed — about the horrors of the world around us when we have the privilege of being able to choose just how much we elect to let ourselves engage with them?

Markman suggests that seeing these types of images might actually have the opposite effect: “The danger of being exposed to too many of these images is that you may weave a number of these extreme events into your life story in a way that may make you less sensitive to the scope of human tragedy. People in professions in which they routinely encounter such tragedies may lose some of the emotional impact that these events inspire in others.”

This is a reality that journalists deal with every day — it’s part of the job.  

I interned in NBC’s Breaking News department during the summer of 2004 — a summer that saw some of the earliest beheading videos, which Iraqi militants began to release at regular intervals as a warning to the Western forces fighting against them.

I will never forget the day the first beheading video was released.

I did not see it, but one of the senior producers in our unit, giving a casual glance at the wires — a routine part of any newsperson’s job — had, and he bolted out of his office, his face and unearthly shade that fluctuated between white and green.

Minutes later, the Executive Director of News for the network gathered the six interns together. Monitoring the wire services was one of our responsibilities, so that we could quickly inform our superiors of any breaking news that the network might want to cover. We did not know then — and somehow, none of us had managed to see — that the beheading video, the first of many to come that summer, had been posted on the wires.

The executive director, a true news veteran, told us he wanted us off the wires immediately. He said that we were all adults and clearly he couldn’t tell us what to do, but he did not want us seeing these kinds of images and then having to live with their effects for the rest of our lives. “These kinds of things can’t be unseen,” he told us, “They will be a part of you always, and I can’t let myself know I did that to you.” It was a moment I will never forget; a voice from the other side who has seen the unspeakable begging us to respect the un-seeable.

In the age of social media, the images only a handful of news editors used to filter for their readers are easily now available to anyone.

“People who do not give themselves the time and space to heal from seeing traumatic images can suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” notes Markman, noting the often permanent effects that these kind of traumatic images can have on their viewers. “Long-term stress from traumatic events can lead to health problems and people may compensate for that stress by turning to drugs and alcohol.”

It is an undeniable luxury to have the ability to look away.

Those who live through these kinds of unimaginable traumas are denied this privilege. So perhaps the best way to honor the wholly unique pain of someone’s suffering is to not attempt to approximate his or her own first-hand experience. To not go out of our way to consume images of their traumas.

Perhaps the best way to collectively mourn is to respectfully look away.