Does Watching Video Hurt Our Moral Judgments About the News?

For sensitive stories, still photos are linked to better moral thinking

Posted Aug 01, 2016

Do the pictures and images in the news affect the moral judgments people make about what they see? Is there a difference between how audiences respond to photographs and streaming video? Put another way, can certain kinds of visual content encourage more higher-level moral thinking about complicated and emotionally charged issues in the news?

Apparently, the answer to all these questions is yes, according to a recent study. When examining the moral judgments made by people who were shown stories accompanied by still photographs versus those who were shown video content, those shown still images consistently exhibited higher-level moral thinking when posed with moral dilemmas.

How can this be? After all, many people – including journalists – often assume that any type of video footage of a story is going to make it more compelling. As audiences continue to move online for all their news, clips of streaming video increasingly is how people – particularly young adults – now understand news about the outside world. The assumption is that news documented by video is somehow superior – even more “true.” When there’s video available, why “settle” for a plain picture?

The answer lies in the different ways our brain seems to process still images and moving pictures, and how that difference affects the quality of our moral thinking. We know there are many advantages to conveying information through video. It’s very effective in capturing and holding attention, allowing us to have a sense of “being there.” It also motivates participation. However, there are also downsides. Our ability to process information can easily be undermined by “visual overload,” particularly when we’re presented with complicated stories with both text and graphics. Repeated exposure to video clips also has been shown to cultivate disengagement. And perhaps most importantly, streaming video prompts us to use up brain power in such a way that it makes it difficult to access our memory centers – and we know that memory is closely linked to our moral judgment. We all grow morally as we become increasingly aware of our obligations to others and recognize the many cases in which duty to others and to society at large comes before our self-interests. This moral maturity relies on memories of moral lessons learned, of the ethical dilemmas we’ve grappled with, and how we’ve come to more sophisticated understandings of notions such as justice, harm and respecting others.

News stories with streaming video, consequently, make it difficult for us to access those morally related memories, and we then tend to make lower-quality moral judgments when considering information presented in that format. Conversely, seeing still photographs does not pose a cognitive challenge to memory access, and our moral judgments tend to reflect higher levels of moral maturity.

That’s the conclusion of a 2015 study by Aimee Meader and colleagues, who presented 150 people with different “ethically charged” stories: one about an undercover sting of a prostitution ring, another about teenage girls beating another girl, and a third about a flash flood that sweeps a man to his death. All participants saw all three stories, but groups saw either versions only with still photographs, or with video footage. The researchers then measured the moral judgment ability of the participants with a widely used instrument, known as the Defining Issues Test. Using the DIT, researchers can put a number on the maturity of moral judgment: Low scores reflect reasoning based primarily on self-interest and getting ahead (known as preconventional reasoning); high scores indicate thinking guided by more complex values and broader social goods (postconventional reasoning).

The result: “Those who saw the still photo used significantly higher levels of more judgment than those who saw the video one time” (Meader et al., 2015, p. 244).

“The bottom line is that in order to help audiences think more critically about issues in the news, using still photographs is better than showing video,” they concluded. “[Internet-based] media are often rich with flashy graphics, rapid-fire video, and competing stimuli that fight for cognitive attention. However, these modalities may fail to promote postconventional moral reasoning. We suggest that when stories in the news are ethically charged, such as when race is a factor, journalists should consider using still images rather than or in addition to video in order to help audiences think at higher ethical levels” (p. 246, 247).

For journalists, the lesson here is sobering: responsible journalism may well mean resisting the impulse to post video whenever it’s available, particularly with sensitive or graphic stories. Media professionals need to be more sophisticated in their thinking about how audiences cognitively process content. The quality of the moral judgments that audiences make about issues and events can in fact depend on how they are presented in the media. 


Meader, A., Knight, L., Coleman, R., & Wilkins, L. (2015). Ethics in the digital age: A comparison of the effects of moving images and photographs on moral judgment. Journal of Media Ethics 30 (4), 234-251.