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Americans Find Graphic Images Online

  |  July 9, 2004   |  Comments

Cultural, gender, and economic divisions are evident among those that approve of the availability of graphic images and those that don't, as millions of Internet users actively search for the disturbing photos and videos.

What Americans are not seeing in the mainstream media they are finding online, according to research from The Pew Internet & American Life Project that reveals the Internet is becoming a source of graphic or disturbing images. Recent events in Iraq, such as murder, prison abuse, and graphic depictions of wartime, have been widely available online, and, in some cases, Internet users are seeking them out.

Roughly 30 million Americans – or 24 percent of adult Internet users – have seen graphic war images online, with 8.4 million actively looking for the pictures or videos. The surge in disturbing image searching has been illustrated in the popular search terms of the week as serious topics have become interspersed throughout the references to pop culture. In fact, the Yahoo Buzz Index for the week ending July 4, 2004 listed "American Beheading Video" as the 12th most popular search term.

The Pew report identified cultural, gender, and economic divisions among those that approved or disapproved of the availability of disturbing online images, with the largest disparity seen between men and women.

"...while there's definitely an appetite (perhaps an unpleasant word) for seeing the most graphic images, that [interest] comes from a somewhat rarified group – Internet users, men, younger, higher socioeconomic group," remarked Deb Fallows, Pew Internet Project senior research fellow and author of the report.

Reactions to Graphic Images Online
Group Approve the display of the images online Disapprove the display of the images online
Men 53% 36%
Women 29% 61%
Under age 30 52% 41%
Over age 30 37% 51%
College grad or higher 47% 43%
HS grad or less 34% 55%
Household over $50k/year 52% 40%
Household under $50k/year 35% 55%
Internet users 47% 44%
Non-Internet users 29% 58%
Democrats 52% 41%
Independents 53% 40%
Republicans 42% 49%
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

Survey respondents were nearly split on whether or not newspapers and television should show war images to the public, with 47 percent saying that the images should be shown, 41 percent saying they shouldn't be shown, and 7 percent saying that it depends. Whether the demand provides the incentive to show the images in the mainstream media remains to be seen.

Fallows says that the networks and cable especially are probably struggling with this issue. "If I were looking at our data from their [network and cable] perspective, I'd notice that Americans at large (including both Internet users and non-Internet users) are much more comfortable with the traditional, familiar standards of the mainstream media (TV and newspapers) than they are with the (lack of) standards of the Internet."

Of the 2,200 respondents to the May through June 2004 survey, 76 percent saw images of Iraqi prisoners of war being abused by American soldiers; 60 percent saw images of American civilian Nicholas Berg, held hostage and murdered in Iraq by Islamic terrorists; and 52 percent saw images of American contractors killed in Fallujah.

Just over half (51 percent) of those who viewed the images felts that had made a good decision, while 33 percent expressed regret. Another 7 percent were conflicted, feeling that it was a good decision but they wished they hadn't seen them.

Fallows noticed that while there's not all that much comfort with the images that are being covered by the mainstream media, there's also a lot of discomfort once people have viewed the images online.

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