Social media provides flood of images of death and carnage from Ukraine war – and contributes to weaker journalism standards

Photos of civilians killed or injured in the Russia-Ukraine war are widespread, particularly online, both on social media and in professional news media.

Editors have always published images of dead or suffering people during times of crisis, like wars and natural disasters. But the current crisis has delivered many more of these images, more widely published online, than ever before.

“It’s all over social media,” says Nancy San Martin, a longtime former foreign correspondent and editor at the Miami Herald. And not just online. Mainstream journalists are also departing from their traditional tendency to avoid prominently featuring images of dead people or particularly direct depictions of physical injuries.

But in times of conflict overseas, those standard practices tend to ease, San Martin, now deputy managing editor for the history and culture desk at National Geographic, told me in a phone interview: “War will always open that door. Part of our role is to document the consequences of war and all that it entails.”

Editorial oversight has traditionally been part of the equation – the practice of a group of journalists who ensure context, balancing the significance and importance of what an image depicts with its gruesomeness. They might, for instance, choose a different angle of an injured or dead person that shows less blood, or crop an image so a dead person’s face isn’t visible, or choose to withhold an image altogether while providing written information about what happened.

As a longtime journalist and editor following media, journalism and human rights, I know images can become public icons symbolizing major events.

The flood of images from the Ukraine war runs deep and wide. It contains many potentially iconic images but also shows more raw carnage than in past conflicts.

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