The media have an effect on the direction of politics through the intensity and frequency of their coverage. Likewise omissions, self-censorship, and neglect have effects.

The internet has an image of Jimmy Sham, a civil rights supporter in Hong Kong, following a hammer attack. The image shows a bloodied man on blood splattered concrete. I searched the Washington Post for the man's name. I found 4 articles posted within the past few hours. The articles feature images and video from the Hong Kong legislature but no image of the bloodied man. It seems the 2019 story of the Hong Kong protests is essentially about the direction of governance and violence. On most days violent conflict is the essence of the story.

The relevant question is newsworthiness. It may be sufficient from a newsworthiness perspective to write that the man has bloody head injuries but if that is the standard then it would seem that newspapers do not need to have images at all. The paper can choose to report that some legislators protested the Chief Executive without choosing to show images of those protestors doing so by holding banners and heckling the speaker while standing on their desks.

It seems the salience of both stories, that of the protesting legislators and that of the bloodied civil rights supporter, is reduced if images are omitted. The decision over a bloody image at a particular newspaper on a particular story is not nearly as important as whether there is a systematic problem. Is there an systematic problem of self-censorship of images of violence? In the modern era a newspaper is received on a computer screen and the technology exists to blur the image until the user clicks to consent to see the proper image.

Addendum: I just discovered the SCMP (South China Morning Post) has a pixelated version of the image on their website. This makes me wonder if there is a U.S.-centric problem and whether it need be pixelated at all in any newspaper.


1 Answer 1


Is there systematic self-censorship of images of violence in U.S. media?

Yes, of course there is.

Essentially all "classic" (print and visual) media and almost all online media practice self-censorship of images and videos of violence. U.S. media are no exception.

This has nothing to do with political censorship, but rather with the idea that such images may be extremely disturbing to many people (some call it "not safe for life") are not adding any useful information to the reporting that such violence exists. Most other images that do get published are not disturbing to (almost) anyone, and in some cases, editors have a tough choice whether to publish or not, often leading to criticism for one side or the other depending on their decision. The BBC tends to issue a warning ahead of images that "some viewers may find disturbing", but in print media this is more difficult.

For similar reasons, classic media won't show a Daesh beheading video either (nor will most social media keep it online if they're made aware of it), they will just report that it exists.

  • I find it disturbing that the SCMP pixelated the image. Blunting the political effect of a story is a political act.
    – H2ONaCl
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 9:01
  • @H2ONaCl Editorial decisions as to what to show explicitly, what to show pixelated, or what not to show at all, are inevitably leading to discussion. Whether or not it's political is debatable, but it's certainly self-censorship (which is what your question was).
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 9:03
  • The Leftists media blackhole all antifa violence. I would maintain that has 100 percent to do with political censorship
    – user9790
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 10:10
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    @KDog The Dutch underground communist press did report when they had successfully killed another SS officer, but in recent decades there has been very little such to report on (of course, if 240,000 people come to an antifascist demonstration it's hardly notable if 0.01% commit some vandalism, so it's entirely reasonable not to focus on that much).
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 10:29

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