Memory and images

By Stephen Pritchard

The Observer

Here’s a little survey. Look back across your life and name the four most significant news images you can remember. Take a moment.

Ready now? OK. Naturally, we will all choose different events according to our ages, but I would be willing to bet that most adults among you would list the planes going into the Twin Towers on 9/11 among your four. You might also have the Chernobyl disaster, the Challenger spacecraft explosion, the fall of Saddam Hussein, the 7/7 bombings in London, the Japanese tsunami.

Equally, a significant image need not necessarily be violent. You might have included the release of Nelson Mandela, the triumph of Barack Obama, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the misery of the Ethiopian famine.

Whatever your choice, it’s very likely that you saw at least one of those images at an early age and it has stayed with you for the rest of your life. When I did this quick survey recently I made the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 my first choice. I was eight years old at the time.

My other nominations included the moon landings and the Vietnam war – events that took place in my adolescence. Despite a lifetime working in newspapers, when asked to pick memorable images my instinct was to go back to a time before I understood what made the news.

I’m grateful to my colleague at SBS in Australia, Sally Begbie, who came up with this unscientific survey and tested it on eight non-editorial staff at her TV station before trying it out on 40 journalists from around the world at the annual conference of the Organization of News Ombudsmen in Buenos Aires.

Her home sample of men and women aged from 23 to 53 all included the Twin Towers in their choices and at least one image seen in their childhood. Interestingly, one respondent listed an image of a woman clinging to a tree in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, but could not be sure if it wasn’t a still from the film The Impossible, based on the disaster but made eight years later.

Another claimed to remember a chilling image of a school murder in Kobe, Japan, which was never shown on TV or used in a newspaper. The respondent was astonished that she had imagined it. “I can see it so clearly, it was just so shocking,” she said, confirming Begbie’s theory that “the viewer is capable of filling in the details even when they are not shown them”.

Of the 32 stories recalled by Begbie’s home sample, terrorism (9/11, Isis killings, the Madrid train bomb) topped the list, with politics, somewhat unexpectedly, coming second, in moments of political crisis or change. Revolution and protest (Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall, Je suis Charlie) took third place, followed by natural disasters (tsunamis, famines), moonshots and the Challenger disaster.

War, murders and massacres were way down the list.

The readers’ editors and broadcasting standards editors gathered at the conference came up with similar events in their nominations, and again most reached back to their childhood for a defining image. As Begbie said: “News producers need to remain aware of their responsibilities… the audience is impressionable from a young age.” Among the 22 nations represented at the conference, “local” news figured low down the order; international events dominated, as they did in the Australian survey.

“Those international events were all terrorism-related,” said Begbie, “but if you consider that terrorism represents a threat to western civilisation, then perhaps news consumers see it as something close to home, an event they can imagine might directly affect them.”

She concluded that the images we retain were actually more about power than mere violence – power in all its forms: terrorism, politics, the power of the natural world, the power of human invention. She also maintained that the images that most people recalled were generally symbolic and not particularly graphic, or detailed. All of which tends to support the practice of most mainstream media to avoid blood and gore.

Begbie suggested that in an overcrowded visual landscape, and with the barbarous propaganda machine of Isis releasing terrifying images, news media need to show restraint. “Less is likely to be more,” she added.

Newsrooms need always to ask themselves if the use of graphic material is essential to the story being told. Common sense – and her survey – suggests that it rarely is.

This column was originally published in The Observer on 30 April 2016.

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