Covering Death, Here and in Iraq

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Respect for the dead. Those are powerful words, and they are interpreted quite differently by some readers and Post editors and reporters. Readers saw insensitivity in coverage of the recent deaths of Saddam Hussein and former president Gerald Ford. Some wanted more photos of 24 dead civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha. Post editors thought it would be insensitive to do so.

Taking the issues chronologically:

Some readers decried the Page 1 story on Dec. 28 -- the day after Ford's death -- by Bob Woodward, detailing Ford's negative views on the Iraq war. Bill L. Thompson of Ashland, Mo., wrote: "One of the reasons some of us can't stand reporters is because they have 'values' that seem foreign to us. Gerald Ford is dead. Can't we just reflect on his life without dragging him into an argument about current policy?"

Woodward spent hours interviewing Ford in 2004 and 2005 and said Ford clearly agreed to the release of his comments after his death: "This is a moment of national discussion about who this man was and what he stood for. It added a new dimension to Ford. He was willing to say what he thought before he left the Earth. It was the intersection of his death and the most important issue in the country."

Journalists want to put news in the newspaper, not withhold or delay it. To Post reporters and editors, running the interview wasn't showing Ford disrespect. As Woodward put it, "It is at the center of what we do."

Others felt Dana Milbank's Washington Sketch column on Dec. 31 was disrespectful. Milbank pointed out that many VIPs did not come to the Capitol for the ceremony that preceded Ford's lying in state.

Ron Nessen, Ford's former press secretary, wrote: "To run Dana Milbank's snide and smarmy story, about how many people did NOT attend President Ford's state funeral at the Capitol, in the middle of Page One of the Sunday Washington Post was ungracious and disrespectful."

The coverage of Ford's death and funeral was wide-ranging and authoritative. Executive Editor Len Downie said, "The notable no-shows were an important part of the news of that day." Readers also pointed out that the main Ford news story had former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the scene and that Milbank had him gone. Rumsfeld wasn't there, and a belated correction is planned.

Some readers were disturbed about the Page 1 picture Dec. 31 of Saddam Hussein in a noose, taken moments before he was hanged. Gregory J. Shadley of the District wrote: "I found the picture of Saddam Hussein on the gallows with a noose around his neck very distasteful and completely inappropriate. . . . Have we become that jaded toward violence and cruelty that this kind of display is acceptable?"

Editors generally do not run photos of executions or the dead, especially on Page 1. There must be a high threshold of news value; Hussein with a rope around his neck meets the highest standard. I could have done without the inside picture of his body, but Downie pointed out that the execution occurred right at the edge of Post production deadlines and that the photo was proof he was dead. The Post also ran photos of the bodies of Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay and of al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Other readers were appalled that the Hussein photo was at the top left of the page and that a picture of Ford's flag-draped casket was in the top right position. One reader wrote: "Nothing would have been lost to put the Saddam photo below the fold. I lose respect for The Post when I see things like this, which don't involve 'news sense' but plain old 'common sense' and decency."

It is always troubling when readers think their newspaper is insensitive in the face of death. I did not agree with the complaints, but I was left with a nagging worry that journalists have a filter that stops us from seeing what readers see more clearly.

Scores of readers wrote -- probably driven by a blogger -- to ask that The Post run more photos from Haditha, the city where several Marines are accused of having killed civilians, many of them women and children. Military reporter Josh White obtained Naval Criminal Investigative Service reports, as yet unreleased, so The Post alone has the photos.

Tim Collier of Gardiner, Maine, wrote: "A newspaper is more than just a vehicle for entertainment and commerce. Its highest purpose is news: to inform on important issues of the day. There are iconic photos from previous wars, such as the shot of the Vietnamese police commander executing the captured VC guerrilla in Saigon during the Tet offensive, that are widely recognized as making a major contribution to public discourse simply by virtue of their publication."

Two other pictures were mentioned frequently -- one of a little girl running from napalm and the picture of the dead after the My Lai massacre. The Post ran versions of all on Page 1.

Five Haditha photos were published, the most newsworthy a Jan. 6 Page 1 photo of dead bodies near a taxi, showing that the victims did not appear to have been fleeing, as some claimed.

Photos of the bodies of accident or crime victims are not run -- unless "there is a clear journalistic purpose" -- out of concern for the "dignity of the deceased," Downie said. The rest of the photos did not meet that criteria, he said. I viewed those photos and agree with him. They were not iconic photos. They were just gruesome and sad.

Editor's Note: Readers who wish to see how other newspapers displayed Saddam Hussein's execution may view an archive of December 31, 2006 front pages at the Newseum web site.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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