Why people are drawn to graphic images
Published : Nov 2, 2022 - 15:54
Updated : Nov 2, 2022 - 17:39

Graphic images of the Itaewon disaster still inundate some media outlets, despite repeated calls to refrain from uploading and watching such content. Experts say guilt, curiosity and attention-seeking could be the drive for this continued behavior.

Psychiatrist Dr. Lee Hae-kook of Catholic University St. Mary’s Hospital in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, explained that people can repeatedly consume graphic scenes of social disaster out of guilt.

“Compulsive guilt and sorrow -- that we should never forget and we should feel sad about it -- can make people repeatedly watch such horrible scenes,” explained Lee.

It is true that we should not overlook this incident, but such determination should be expressed through constructive discussions to empathize with victims and to prevent recurrence, said Lee.

Psychiatrist Dr. Baek Jong-woo of Kyung Hee University Hospital said that many people compulsively ask “why?” when an incomprehensible disaster breaks out. “One searches for related information and news all day long, trying to grasp the horrible situation that our community has faced.”

Baek also noted that the act of distributing graphic content can be done for attention, or in the name of satisfying curiosity. "We should keep in mind that many people have lost their loved ones and that our actions can be hurtful."

“Continuously exposing oneself to the graphic scene does not help, but only amplifies negative emotions like guilt, sorrow and anger,” added Lee.

In the wake of the incident, the government has urged the public to refrain from sharing graphic images. And four major media organizations in the country -- Korea News Editors’ Association, Journalists Association of Korea, Korean Women Journalist Association, Korea Internet Newspaper Association -- issued a joint statement Tuesday, saying the press would avoid use of inappropriate content and hate speech.

However, as of Tuesday evening, the Korea Communications Standards Commission said it had received 70 complaints about photos, videos and broadcast news reports with graphic scenes related to the Itaewon disaster. Seven reports were about inappropriate news broadcasts and 63 reports were accusing photos and videos posted online.

Although diverse measures to filter content has appeared, it is difficult to crack down on all content spread through online platforms, and it is also impossible to completely prohibit people from consuming such content.

Many viewers who have been exposed to this content are suffering. “I saw some videos and it haunts me. The graphic parts were blurred, but the image was still shocking,” said Lee Sae-hyun, a 23-year-old college student.

“I blocked myself from watching news broadcasts. I could actually feel my mind suffering,” Song In-jun, a 25-year-old office worker also made similar comment.

With the traumatizing impact of graphic images surfacing as a major social issue, the government said Tuesday online posts relating to the incident will be monitored by the Personal Information Protection Commission. The PIPC announced it will conduct extensive monitoring in November, regarding personal information infringement related to the Itaewon disaster.

But experts say more practical measures are necessary.

To provide safety measures from harmful content, Lim Jong-in, professor of Korea University School of Cybersecurity, called for practical measures, such as revising the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection. Lim said the law should stipulate rules that manage graphic content of a disaster situation.

“In case of the content that deals with a national level disaster, legal grounds should be clear so that everyone can raise questions and request deletions.

Lim mentioned the “Anti-Nth room law” which provided the legal ground for censoring content to block sexual exploitation contents.

“‘Anti-Nth room law,’ allowed filtering and since then, the portals had developed various self-purification systems. The new law enabled the development of filtering technology by providing legal grounds for its use.”

“Between the appropriate filtering and excessive censorship, we should find ways to protect ourselves,” he added.

By Lee Jung-youn (