The graphic images and video footage published on Twitter within hours of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 crashing in Ukraine led many professional journalists to call on those at the scene to refrain from posting such upsetting and insensitive content – a reaction which press body Hacked Off said shows “the underlying importance of ethics in journalism.”
It is another instance where citizens on the scene were driving the story with their own pictures and films, but Joan Smith, executive director, Hacked Off said: “Posting pictures of dead bodies isn't just an intrusion into private grief; there is a risk that someone will see the body of a relative or friend without warning. Some relatives won't want such images of loved ones in their heads and we should respect their choice.
“I was pleased to see professional journalists warning against publishing such photos on social media, underlining the importance of training in the ethics of journalism.”
Numerous images of the deceased at the crash site emerged, while some people took shots of passports and posted them online. Many argued, given the pace at which it happened, family members could potentially see these pictures before they had even been definitively told a relative was on board the ill-fated flight.
It is nighttime in Malaysia, families of #MH17 passengers may not know. Not the time for corpse pictures.
— Emily Rauhala (@emilyrauhala) July 17, 2014
Dear Twitter: Please stop retweeting images of #MH17 wreckage with bodies on the ground. It's still someone's family. Think before you tweet — Lacy Baugher (@LacyMB) July 17, 2014
Twitter is beginning to fill up with images of dead bodies. Out of respect for the families of those who we lost, let's show restraint #MH17
— Michael Skolnik (@MichaelSkolnik) July 17, 2014
Won't retweet them but there are horrific pictures from #MH17 crash site showing dead victims still strapped to chairs. — Jerome Taylor (@JeromeTaylor) July 17, 2014
Speaking to The Drum, Peter Jukes, recently named Press Gazette's best UK reporter on social media, said: “Social media is great for feeding information from the front line, but it is always a question of news and taste and balance and you don’t want to hide the horror of what had happened but you don’t want family members to see pictures of bodies all over the internet before they have been told by authorities. Media organisations make that judgement all the time, but social media can’t”
However, he added that Twitter is not Ofcom regulated, “nor should it be”.
“It’s a difficult area, but to completely supress it would be to conceal the horror of what’s happened.”
Twitter does take the view that the site should be self-patrolled.
When asked to clarify its policy on users tweeting photos of bodies and victims passports and whether they will be left on the site uncensored, The Drum was offered highlighted paragraphs taken from the platform’s support site
"If you upload media that might be considered sensitive content such as nudity, violence, or medical procedures, you should consider applying the account setting ‘Mark my media as containing sensitive content’.
“If another user notices that you have not marked your media appropriately, that user may flag your image or video for review.
“If one of your tweets containing media is reported, it will be sent to the Twitter team for review. If we find that the media wasn’t marked as being possibly sensitive at the time of the upload: We label the media as being possibly sensitive, change your account setting to 'Mark my media as containing potentially sensitive content' so that future uploads are marked accordingly.”
Jukes stressed that that he personally didn't see a great number of particualrly distressing or graphic images, but said there may be an element of "professional protection" from jounalists "in that thay feel that social media isn't patrolled and doesn't apply the same rules they do as trained journalists."
The Observer's former news editor, Chris Boffey, summarised the newspaper coverage the morning after the incident, to examine how media reacted to the story.