In the aftermath of the Malaysia Air Ukraine incident, one thing was clear: the damage ran deep. But beyond the obvious and important political scope, what is the responsibility of media outlets when covering the tragedy?

A day after the incident, the New York Times ran this front page piece about the airplane’s “trail of debris.” Rather than focusing solely on the investigation efforts and/or the deeply historical politics, the NYT piece spent a majority of its word count detailing the gruesome remains of those who were traveling on Malaysia Air Flight 17—including what the victims were wearing, the posturing of their bodies, and even the name addressed on a parking ticket found in the debris.

There’s no doubt that a war’s reach is horrific. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes about his experience as a psychiatrist imprisoned in Auschwitz, and the complications of documenting the horrors of a concentration camp:

“To attempt a methodological presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the outsider, but he is far too removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgments may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable.”

How are journalists to document an experience in which they may be an integral part while also possessing the “necessary detachment” of reportage?

In the chapter “Photography, Journalism, and Trauma,” from Journalism After September 11, Professor of Communication Barbie Zelizer tackles the photojournalist’s role in moving a public from trauma to recovery. She writes, “Defined as an act of witnessing that enables people to take responsibility for what they see (Zelizer 1998: 10), bearing witness moves individuals from the personal act of ‘seeing’ to the adoption of a public stance by which they become part of a collective working through trauma together.”

And still, beyond the ramifications of journalism for the reading and viewing public at large, what are the impacts on the journalists themselves? In “Journalism and Trauma: How Reporters See and Make Sense of What They See” (from Journalism Studies), Gretchen Dworznik, previously a television anchor and reporter herself, uses qualitative research methods to examine how journalists make sense of their witnessing of traumatic incidents.

Following on this, from the field of psychology, psychologists Marla Buchanan and Patrice Keats expose the coping techniques of Canadian journalists in “Coping with Traumatic Stress in Journalism: A critical ethnographic study” (from International Journal of Psychology). They find that coping mechanisms, such as avoidance strategies and black humor, are often used by journalists as a way to recover from the difficult psychological stress of their work.

Journalists and their respective media outlets are left between a rock and a hard place, as this study on the challenges of reporting on trauma and the value of reflective practice for journalists asserts. The question, as the authors note, for journalists and news outlets is often one of allegiance: “Which notion of public interest assumes precedence: a community experiencing a trauma or the news consumer as a member of the general public?”

Furthermore, beyond the coverage of trauma itself is the controversial coverage of grief. Kelly McBride, one of the country’s leading voices in media ethics, writes of Newtown’s media blackout on the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting in

“We live in a media world of excess. With self-discipline, restraint and a sense of service to our audience — rather than to our ratings or web metrics — journalists should be able to provide meaningful stories a year after Newtown. And possibly such efforts can set the tone for future tragedies.”

What follows is a slideshow of some of the most controversial documentations of tragedy, from the wartime to the personal. The journalist’s role in these tragedies will always be one worth examining. As Henry Anatole Grunwald, former managing editor of Time has said: “Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”

Image credit: Cliff via flickr

[Note: images are graphic; discretion is advised.]