I have to disagree with the other answers, and agree with the asker: in current use, “graphic” does have negative connotations.
The development of this sense seems pretty straightforward. It literally (and historically) means simply “clear, vivid”. But it was (and is) commonly used to mean a clear depiction of something that might shock, offend, or upset: violence, sex, rude language, etc.
With repetition, the association becomes stronger, and it becomes less and less likely that clear depictions of good things will be called “graphic”. I, for one, would never call a small child’s drawing “graphic” in order to praise its vivid depiction of the subject!
(As a maths teacher, I’ve recently had a similar experience with the term “explicit”. To my students, at least, the word is strongly associated with the things their parents don’t want them to see, hear, or read.)
Ultimately, we end up with “graphic content” as a euphemism. It doesn’t tell you what is depicted graphically, but the audience (usually parents/guardians) is expected to understand that it’s something “bad”, and to make decisions accordingly.
Further musing: It seems to me to be getting to the point where “graphic” need not mean “clearly depicted offensive content”, but could instead mean “offensive content” in general. I would not be at all surprised to hear someone describe a typical TV-show waist-up shirts-on sex scene as “graphic content”.
Evidence: I don’t have anything very definite (or should I say explicit?), but Google searches for phrases like
"graphic content like" (quotation marks included) have turned up many results that seem to not be using “graphic” literally. Links here are indicative, not exhaustive.
- Content warnings on TikTok: It appears that “sensitive content” is the wording that TikTok itself uses, but many articles and users refer to these as “graphic content warnings”, as though “graphic” and “sensitive” were synonymous.
- “Graphic Content Filter” in video games of the Call of Duty series: Descriptions indicate that it turns off blood, swearing, swastikas, and at least one level depicting violence against civilians. Is all of this depicted in a truly graphic way if you leave the filter off?
- YouTube’s “Violent or graphic content policy”: Plenty of these are pretty clearly suggestive rather than graphic, but you could argue that they come under “violent” instead of “graphic”. (After all, that could cover anything that incites or encourages violence, not only things that depict it.) But while putting an animal in potential danger is certainly objectionable, I question whether it’s “violent or graphic” in a literal sense.
(NB: Yes, I know that none of these examples give evidence for my specific example above—that a scene of implied sex might be called “graphic”. I quite specifically avoided searching for any examples along those lines, and I leave that as an exercise for the reader! Caveat scrutator.)
But as a descriptor for a specific kind of offensive content (“graphic violence”, “graphic nudity”), “graphic” still retains its original meaning. I think that’s because saying something contains graphic violence (etc.) necessarily implies a contrast with something that merely contains violence, without the adjective. Consider this hypothetical conversation:
“This book has swearing in it.”
“Oh, the parents won’t like that. How bad is it?”
“Some of it’s pretty graphic.”
Now go back and replace “swearing” with “content”… it doesn’t come out quite the same, does it?
That said, at some point the Australian classification labels stopped using “adult themes” as a content warning, and started using just “themes”. (This movie is rated PG, because it has themes? The horror!) Thankfully I think they’ve stopped that now.
A concern was raised in the comments that this is really just an example of omitting a word—I believe ellipsis is the term. This a perfectly common phenomenon that isn’t specific to English. And it’s true that ellipsis, in and of itself, needn’t mean that the remaining word(s) will take on the sense of the omitted word.
However, I think you’ll find that widely-used examples of ellipsis can do exactly that. “The dead” are dead people, not sheep, dinosaurs, or computers. “Exceptional” means exceptionally good, not bad or pink. And “graphic” means graphically offensive, not beautiful or descriptive.
(Whether these examples really show ellipsis is probably very arguable. For instance, does “the dead” show ellipsis of the noun “people”, or is it just noun use of the adjective “dead”? My aim is simply to demonstrate that even if we say it’s ellipsis, the asker is still not wrong.)
In conclusion, no, I don’t agree at all that this is a non-native speaker seeing some association that isn’t there for native speakers. Maybe not all native speakers ascribe a sense of “violent/sexual” to “graphic”, but many do.