It's a situation right out of my ethics class in journalism school.
The White House, as I write this, is still debating on whether or not to release photos
that allowed them to identify the body of slain terrorist Osama bin Laden. The conversation started here at The News-Herald yesterday as to whether or not we should print them if they do.
The ethics class debates I recall so easily (they weren't really that long ago) focused mainly on photos from Sept. 11. The iconic shot of the man jumping from one of the towers was a hot topic of discussion. Was it OK to print a photo that clearly showed a man about to die? What if we could identify him? Even if it's incredibly traumatic, doesn't the photo best capture and describe the situation?
Since my career in journalism has started, I haven't had to deal with too many similar situations. The situation I relate to most here is from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. We saw photos chronicling death, destruction and lots and lots of blood. Bodies crushed by rubble. Individuals with trapped limbs and looks of horror. The general consensus was not to print photos denoted as graphic by the Associated Press. There would be plenty of photos that told the horrible story of the destruction in Haiti that were less graphic. There was really no question in what to do.
Yesterday fellow copy editor Robin Palmer posed the question to copy editor Cheryl Sadler and me. Did we think we should publish the photo of bin Laden if it was released? We both agreed that we shouldn't print it. Robin and others said it should be printed. I was immediately intrigued.
I posted the dilemma on Twitter and got a few responses. After a day, they were pretty much split down the middle, which I suppose is to be expected. Opinions on the issue are going to be very diverse, especially among those not in the journalism business.
The issues in this situation are many and varied. There are individuals who don't believe bin Laden is really dead, and demand to see evidence. Some do believe he is dead, but want to see the evidence anyway. Others would never want to see something so gruesome and graphic. Some might want to see it, but wouldn't want to see it in their morning paper--or wouldn't want their kids to grab the paper and see it. (It definitely would not pass "The Breakfast Test.")
So, what do we do?
As a news organization, it is our task to deliver information to the public. As it says every day at the top of our editorial page:
“Search for truth is the noblest occupation of man; its publication is a duty.”
In the case of the death of one of the world's most dangerous terrorist leaders, we would be failing in our duty to deliver that information if we didn't somehow, in some form, publish such important photos from a critical moment in our nation's war on terror--and in our nation's history.
The News-Herald has a plan for if and when the photos are released. But whatever we do, I don't see an end to this debate. Should such graphic imagery be published in print? Should it be on the front page of www.News-Herald.com? Or should it be withheld entirely?
What do you think?
Let us know here in the comments, on www.News-Herald.com
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Labels: ethics, journalism, osama bin laden death