“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.
Explore the remaining al-Qaeda leadership and see former leaders that have been killed since Sept. 11, 2001.
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.”