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Shooting the dead: Photographs of dead bodies in israeli media

Abstract : This research focuses on the presentation of dead bodies and the representation of death in the Israeli press. The study analysed the manner in which the Israeli press covers death events in visual terms, and shows how these practices operate as mechanism of inclusion and exclusion. Introduction The use of images presenting dead bodies in news reports is infrequent, despite the conventional wisdom that "what bleeds leads" (Fahmy and Kim 2008; Griffin 2010; Hanusch 2010; Zelizer 2010). This is due to the journalist self-regulations that were established in western countries in relation to mortal images and the sensitivity they bear (Campbell 2004; Hanusch 2010; Zelizer 2010). And yet, such images do appear in the media from time to time. The presentation of images depicting explicit death is not void of ethical, social and political meaning and therefore it is often controversial. The discussion about the presentation of death images and the journalistic practice that was developed in relation to this issue teaches us that death images obtain different attention than other news images. These practices are subject to a fierce debate between different social agents (Griffin 2010; Zelizer 2010). The coverage of death events can elicit feeling of care and compassion, but it can also cause panic, block feelings of sympathy and identification or objectify the dead. In this sense, the ways death images are utilized when reporting death events is significant in the construction of the meaning of the reported event. Accordingly, by studying the representation of death in news reports, we can have a better understanding of the power relations in society and its dominant values. The study here is based on the cultural approach to communication (Carey 1992), according to which communication is not merely a transmission of information, but also a process of constructing and reaffirming mutual beliefs and dominant social values. Cultural actions are projections of ideals and social norms that compose the basis of our society. I chose to focus my scrutiny on the visual representation of death on the news, since contemporary culture in many ways is a visual culture (Carey 2005; Mirzoeff 1998). The proliferation of cameras and the development of new technologies have made our age one where visual communication is a common means of transmitting information. Visual communication did not replace linguistic discourse. Rather, it is a vital supplement that supports verbal texts and helps the addressee to more easily decode the texts in the media. This paper studies the visual coverage of the death events in Israel over 21 years, from the first Palestinian uprising (the Intifada) in December 1987 until 2008. The main argument is that Israeli media employs different modes of covering death events, depending on the national affiliation of the dead. As such, visual representation serves as a mechanism to delineate the boundaries of the Israeli community. Visual Presentation of Death on the News: The Israeli case The newsworthiness of a death event is sometimes in conflict with the values of human dignity and social respect towards the dead. According to Jewish tradition, for example, it is customary to cover the dead body and not openly display it in public (Lamm 1969). One of the functions of the media is to reflect and enforce social norms (Lazarsfeld and Merton 1948). How should death events be reported by the media in a society that perceives the visual presentation of the dead in public as a taboo, and considers such showing as a scorning of human dignity? The Israeli reality of frequent terror attacks has led to a public debate about the proper way to cover such events. On one side of the debate were the journalists, who argued that the media should present reality "as is" and that by self-censoring the reports, the media undermines its raison d'être. On the other hand there were some voices that argued that explicit coverage causes unnecessary panic amongst the viewers and also violates the human dignity of the victims. "It is not within the public's right to know how this and that looks, when he or she is bleeding" (Kasher, in Levi-Barzilay 2005). Thus, the questions around the visual representation of death reflect fundamental values in modern democratic societies that might be in conflict with one another. The public's right to know and freedom of the press might clash with the respect towards the dead, privacy and human dignity. Managing the visibility of death - shaping the visual encounter with death - tells us something about the prevailing values of a society and the power relations between different groups that compose it. Findings The analysis of photographs from 21 years of reporting death events in Israeli newspapers outlines the norms regulating Israeli media coverage of death over time. The analysis confirms the hypothesis that the death of non-Israelis is visually presented more explicitly than the coverage of Israelis, which is mostly restrained and respectful. The Israeli media applies different modes to cover death events based on the identity of the dead. Conclusion Based on the notion of banal journalism (Sonwalkar 2005), according to which journalism serves as a mechanism of inclusion/exclusion, I argue that the norms that apply to the presentation of death delineate different group memberships, with Israeli media routinely distinguishing "us" (Israeli Jews) from "them" (non-Jewish-Israelis and nonIsraelis). The Israeli media respects the human dignity of the members of Israeli society and tends to violate the human dignity of its "others". Thus, the norms governing the representation of dead bodies serve as a means of defining and confirming the boundaries of Israeli society.
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Submitted on : Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 2:45:06 PM
Last modification on : Wednesday, January 30, 2019 - 4:19:20 PM


  • HAL Id : hal-00840431, version 1


Morse Tal. Shooting the dead: Photographs of dead bodies in israeli media. Communiquer dans un monde de normes. L'information et la communication dans les enjeux contemporains de la " mondialisation "., Mar 2012, France. ⟨hal-00840431⟩



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