Bin Laden photos: Editors debate showing graphic images of dead body

May 3, 2011

The White House says it has photos of the dead Osama bin Laden and they’re “gruesome.” That raises a question in America’s newsrooms: To publish or not to publish when the pictures are released?

Short answer: It all depends on your definition of “gruesome.”

The potential release of photographs documenting the U.S. raid on bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout presents the news media — at least the so-called mainstream media — with a historic dilemma. The images are the very definition of news, but they’re also likely to be horrifyingly graphic, the sort of thing that American newspapers and television networks avoid showing their readers and viewers.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that administration officials are still debating whether to make public any of the photos and video taken by U.S. military forces during and after the raid early Sunday. The image cache includes grisly shots of bin Laden, who reportedly suffered massive facial and skull wounds above his left eye from gunshots fired by American commandos.

Carney said officials are concerned about the “sensitivity” of releasing such photos because of their disturbing nature and because they could inflame anti-American sentiment around the world. But officials are also eager to rebut skepticism among bin Laden’s supporters and sympathizers that reports of his death are part of an American disinformation campaign and that he is still alive.

People in the news media are faced with a related, if somewhat different, issue: Would such obviously newsworthy pictures be so revolting that they’d create a wave of complaints?

“Obviously, I can’t say whether or how we will run a photo we haven’t even seen,” said Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times. He added: “We generally avoid pictures that are gra­tui­tous­ly ghastly. But the key word is ‘gratuitously,’ meaning the images, besides being disturbing, don’t have significant journalistic value. Pictures of Osama bin Laden dead certainly have significant journalistic value.”

Associated Press director of photography Santiago Lyon said his organization would screen the material before distributing it to news outlets and would alert them to any “particularly graphic images” beforehand so they can make their own calls. Most news organizations that subscribe to AP do their own screening, he said, but some have feeds that automatically publish online AP-distributed work.

CNN evaluates each image it broadcasts or publishes online but has no general policy about the use of grisly content, Washington producer Sam Feist said. In 2006, for example, the network showed the battered faces of Saddam Hussein’s dead sons, Uday and Qusay. The rationale parallels the argument in favor of running pictures of bin Laden’s body: The photos provided direct evidence that the Husseins had actually been killed, he said. In any event: “We’d prepare the audience [before showing them something graphic]. . . . We know that some of these images do make people uncomfortable.”

“It sounds old-fashioned, but we are a family newspaper,” said Liz Spayd, The Washington Post’s managing editor. “We are mindful that people’s children see the paper, and we don’t want to publish anything gratuitously. At the same time, we don’t want to hide what’s happening.”

Short of airing a close-up picture, ABC News might elect to show one that indicated the dead man was bin Laden, such as a photo taken from a distance, spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said.

As a general rule, American media organizations shy away from presenting images of death, especially the violent kind. Even in war zones or after natural disasters where thousands may have died, news pictures tend to emphasize destruction and the suffering of the living rather than corpses.

The violent deaths of newsworthy individuals, however, sometimes create exceptions. The New York Times, The Post and other newspapers ran photos of Saddam Hussein’s body after he was executed in Iraq in late 2006. The bloodied face of Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi was broadcast around the world after he was killed by a U.S. airstrike in the same year. And pictures of people leaping from the burning World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, were widespread.

But the deaths of Americans are usually a different story, says Fred Ritchin, a professor of photography and imaging at New York University. It’s exceptionally rare to see the body of a U.S. soldier, he said. And gruesome footage of the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by terrorists in Pakistan wasn’t broadcast by mainstream news outlets.

In the absence of photographic confirmation of bin Laden’s death, mainstream media outlets resorted Monday and Tuesday to relatively tame file images of a very live bin Laden: shooting a gun, haranguing Westerners in his infamous video communiques or gazing into the middle distance.

In the end, however, Ritchin says it doesn’t really matter how the traditional news media try to handle government-issued photos of bin Laden — they’ll appear someplace, and probably many places, online. “The gatekeepers,” he says, “aren’t keeping the gates anymore.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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