A photo depicted dead children in Gaza : NPR Public Editor A reader reacts

A photo depicted dead children in Gaza

A reader reacts

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

A reader was scrolling through her news feed when she clicked on an NPR headline about an air assault in Gaza and found herself looking at a photo of dead children. She was upset by the picture and immediately felt as if the people she was looking at were being exploited. Then she got angry that NPR didn't warn her and give her a choice about whether to see it.

It was a natural and empathetic reaction to a powerful news photo. On behalf of this reader, we reached out to ask about the decision-making at NPR around this particular image, as well as the general policies about graphic photos. Keep reading to see the letter we received, what we learned from NPR and our specific advice.

Newsrooms everywhere create policies for making sensitive choices. These policies are designed to guide the decisions that journalists make every day across the organization. The work of creating daily news, whether it's a website, a newspaper or a broadcast show, typically is broken down into specific steps and dispersed across many specialists and disciplines.

Like in many jobs, there's an element of factory production to the work. Every decision rolls up into an end result that is designed to help people see, feel and comprehend a complicated world. But it's incumbent on journalists to remember that the news business is not a factory.

When journalists forget about the people at the end of that process receiving the news, they inadvertently undermine their own work. If that happens a lot, it changes the habits of the people consuming the news, making them cynical and less likely to trust the news organization. It's why it's valuable for reporters and editors to hear from readers about their experiences.

NPR announced yesterday that it was adding both senior editors and several new review processes to the newsroom. The additional resources are designed to enhance NPR's quality control, creating a layer of leadership that is looking across all of NPR's many platforms, including radio shows, podcasts, digital stories and social media. These resources should help provide the type of review that was missing as this story was edited. "Being the most trusted news organization, we need to keep that trust," said Edith Chapin, senior vice president and editor in chief.

We also received a response to our last newsletter, which examined NPR's coverage of former President Donald Trump's criminal trial. One reader wondered if NPR was overemphasizing the issues. We respond below. Finally, we highlight a story about the high medical bills families pay for pregnancy and birthing care, even when they have good insurance and there are relatively few complications. — Kelly McBride


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Photo of dead children

Cynthia Guthrie wrote on April 21: The top featured story on my newsfeed [was about an] attack by Israel on ... Rafah which killed 14 children. I tapped ...to see the full article only to see a photograph showing 3 small bodies apparently deceased with one in the middle having their face exposed. To say that I find this disturbing is an understatement and just an exploitation piece of a horrible situation. Not to mention an invasion of that family's privacy. ... All you had to do was provide a small warning of graphic content.

The photo in question shows a person sitting on a tile floor, cradling a small body wrapped in a white sheet. Next to him are two more dead children, one with the face clearly exposed, and another partially soaked in blood. The photo caption reads: "A Palestinian youth mourns his relative killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at the morgue of the Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, early Saturday, April 20, 2024."

The photo, captured by Palestinian photojournalist Ismael Abu Dayyah for the Associated Press, accompanied an AP story that began by documenting an overnight air raid on Rafah, and went on to provide an update on the seventh month of the Israel-Hamas war.

The photo is the dominant element at the top of the page, just under the headline. There is no warning to readers that they are about to see a disturbing image. We believe there should have been. (Here's a link to the story and photo, which will be at the top of the screen as soon as the story loads.) But even more than that, NPR and other newsrooms should do more to explain how such photos come to be, so that people can see how journalists document these powerful and intimate moments.

Many distressing photos and videos have emerged since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and kidnapping more than 200. Israel has responded with a campaign of air raids and an invasion of Gaza, killing more than 30,000 people.

This particular photo was distributed with an accompanying story by the AP, according to Gerry Holmes, managing editor for enterprise and planning. NPR subscribes to the AP and is able to use stories for its own audience. Holmes said a U.S.-based editor working overnight selected this story and photo.

"In looking back at the story and having conversations with the editors, I think a warning would have been appropriate for this one," Holmes said. "Moving the image down a little further in the story and then including a warning, so that there's time for the reader to [make a choice,] I think that would have been appropriate."

NPR journalists defer to the AP as a standard-bearer and so editors are less likely to question their decisions, Holmes suggested.

However, NPR's guidelines around graphic imagery involving dead bodies in photos instruct front-line editors to discuss the image with more senior editors. Holmes said there are frequent conversations around graphic images, how a photo adds news value and where it should be placed. But that did not happen in this case.

Nicole Werbeck, deputy director of visuals, told us NPR's publication of photos containing dead bodies is handled case by case. She said she works with NPR's standards and practices editor. "And if we do decide that the news warrants that we do that, we do use warnings to make sure that we're not causing any kind of trauma or upsetting the audience," Werbeck explained. However, the visuals team was not involved in this decision. She wished they had been consulted.

We sent this story link to Andrea Bruce, a documentary photographer who teaches at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and has focused on the aftermath of war. She believes there should be warnings for graphic images like this one, especially online. "We don't know who is looking at the images, how they see the photos, or their personal connection to a conflict or situation," Bruce said in an email to us. "A warning gives viewers the heads-up so that they can prepare themselves or choose not to look. There is a specific sensitivity toward seeing dead children that makes this image more painful."

Bruce didn't view this photo as disrespectful to the people in the image. "As a photographer, being respectful to the people in the photograph is the most important aspect of photojournalism — making sure they know how the photo will be seen in the world, making sure that is something they want," she said.

Bruce encouraged NPR and the AP to include with the story an explanation of how the photo was produced. "That might mean adding a paragraph to a caption about the situation around the photo and something about who the photographer is, how they came to be in the situation," she suggested. "Or, maybe the photo editor could interview the photographer to add this information to the coverage."

Given the complexity in publishing distressing war photos, it might be tempting for editors to simply select images that don't depict death. Rather than do that, Bruce suggested that journalists find ways to talk openly about how the photographers navigate the environment they work in. "We as journalists need to bring viewers into each situation with care — or we run the risk of turning them away completely."

In many cases photographers have permission from the family to document their grief and share it with the world, according to Bruce. Publishing photos that show the human toll of the suffering — on all sides of a war — fulfills journalism's primary mission of telling the story. "And in this case, as we look back at this story and the photo in particular, it was a very graphic photo but an important photo for the tenor of that story," Holmes said.

Audience members shouldn't stumble upon pictures of dead children while navigating NPR's news. Instead, NPR editors should select the most appropriate stories, photos and videos, and then prepare news consumers to take them in and understand what's happening. We also agree that the photo, as painful as it is, matched the core of the story. The power of the image is something journalists should always handle with care without hiding the truth embedded in it. — Amaris Castillo

A response to our analysis of Trump trial coverage

Charles Miller wrote on May 2: NPR Public Editor Team:

Each of you know that words matter. There are often meanings beyond the actual words themselves, intended or unintended.

A case in point from your message below:

"By focusing on legal analysis, chief Washington editor Krishnadev Calamur told us, NPR journalists want to make clear how unprecedented this is. 'A former president has never been on trial, and a person who may be the next president has never been on trial. ... I can't emphasize enough how consequential that is.'"

Over emphasis has consequences, too. I think it reasonable to deduce that a very high percentage of NPR listeners and the general public have heard this statement (screed?) abundantly repeated since the indictment was first issued. To me, K. Calamur's statement reveals a mindset that his audience is a bit obtuse and needs instruction. This reflects a bias that should be minimized.

In our last newsletter, we analyzed NPR's coverage of Trump's criminal trial in New York. We spoke with chief Washington editor Krishnadev Calamur, who explained how NPR is prioritizing its coverage.

We sent this response to our newsletter to Calamur to ask his thoughts.

"This story has distinct angles — political and legal," he wrote. "While covering the campaign trail, we focus chiefly on the former. While covering the trial, it is only right we focus mainly on the latter."

News consumers will perceive NPR's devotion to an ongoing story differently, depending on how much they listen. A daily news consumer might feel that NPR is overemphasizing the historic nature of Trump's criminal trial. Other audience members may read or hear an update on the trial only once every couple of days. Because Trump is entangled in other legal battles, it is quite easy to get them mixed up. So stating the stakes of this particular criminal trial is important.

While it's important that reporters take a measured approach to the weekslong trial, it would be irresponsible to skip the check-ins. The frequency of the updates reflects an important role journalists play in covering legal matters: Not all of the American public can be in the courtroom, yet deserves to know what's happening. — Emily Barske Wood


The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

A financial woe for new parents

Medical debt is a growing financial challenge for new parents in the United States. Reporter Noam Levey, of NPR partner KFF Health News, recently reported about the issue for All Things Considered and in an extensive digital story. Levey interviewed a mother who said she and her husband will not have a second child and are considering forgoing doctors' appointments altogether because of the health care bills that racked up after the birth of their first child, even with insurance, and even though they had a healthy baby. The family's story, in addition to the insight from experts, made for compelling explanatory journalism. — Emily Barske Wood

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, X and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute