The Cheerios Test has long been the standard for deciding which images to publish.
It posits that if an image would likely cause a reader to barf-up his or her breakfast, then the image fails the test and probably ought not be published.
As journalists, we see lots of things – not all of which are fit for publication.
It’s our job to inform, but sometimes this is curbed by issues of taste and sensibility. Publishing extremely graphic photos, like the ones shown here, could sway public opinion; although, not necessarily in the way we expect. Opinion could sway against the publication rather than the situation.
That’s why images with dead bodies – like these on the left – shouldn’t be published.
The argument for the publication of graphic photos is that the public needs to see the unabashed brutality of the situation.
However, using an alternative image – like the ones on the right – or employing descriptive writing to detail the situation for readers is a better choice to convey the news because the audience is still informed, but not incited with the same repugnant indignation at being intruded upon with graphic vulgarity.
Audience backlash is an undesired consequence. By running certain images, the risk of negative feedback increases greatly. Just ask the Associated Press after the dying Marine photo.
In communications’ jurisprudence, the Supreme Court often cites the “intrusiveness of the medium” in allowing restrictions on the free speech rights of broadcasters – claiming children could be easily inundated by inappropriate material.
While I’m not intending to go into a lecture on the various nuances of First Amendment protection between different media, I do propose this: Publishing a graphic picture is far more intrusive to readers than describing events though good writing.
As Fox News‘ slogan goes, “We inform, you decide.”
Let’s try to ensure that we are informing readers to help them decide, not ensuring readers will choose to forgo informing themselves with our information because of our choices of what to publish.