How newsworthy are the dead?

Impact of graphic photos of war carries political and emotional weight


March 30, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Television Writer

To wage war is to decide that you have a cause worth dying for -- and killing for. The news media cannot credibly cover war without reporting on the deaths that result. But the decision of how much carnage to show -- whose war dead to show and in how much detail -- is laden with tremendous political and emotional implications.

It didn't take long for that decades-old dilemma to surface in the conflict in Iraq.

In the first days of the war, the mother of one of the first American soldiers killed rebuked NBC's Tom Brokaw for showing pictures of crashed helicopters and other incidents, calling it slow torture. Government officials in the United States and United Kingdom have verged on accusing U.S., European and Arab news networks, such as Al-Jazeera, of breaking the Geneva Convention by airing images of allied war dead and prisoners of war taped by Iraqi state television.

Such objections haven't been heard, however, when it comes to dead Iraqi combatants. Is the question one of protecting the dead against desecration and exploitation? Or is a different value placed on casualties of different nationalities?

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, the best-selling book on a ruptured U.S. military mission in Somalia, says that the Iraqi television video was grotesque, its savagery thrown into relief by the professional treatment of captured Iraqi soldiers by U.S. troops.

But Bowden strongly believes that there is a double standard. "We don't recoil from images of dead Iraqi soldiers," he says, "but we do when Americans are killed."

Indeed, U.S. networks have promised not to show U.S. war dead before next of kin have been notified. Most television news channels also have shielded recognizable features from view, either by the selection of footage or by digitally altering the tapes.

Yet that hasn't always been the case. Bowden's book centered on a U.S. raid of a Somali warlord's inner circle that went horribly awry. Major networks and newsmagazines carried images of a downed U.S. naval pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by an exulting mob.

Similarly, victims were clearly recognizable in the coverage of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. "You saw mutilation, bloated corpses, piles of bodies," says Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report about television news. "At the time, I applauded showing that. It was the only way to show the enormity of the genocide."

What's at stake

The risks of angering readers and viewers are high. News organizations may be perceived to be making a fetish of death, dwelling on it or exploiting it. Or, as many peace activists and journalists from Arab countries charge, the news media can be seen to be dulling the effects of a distant war by refusing to run pictures of death in its vivid horror.

Journalists often like to style themselves as a cynical and hardened lot. Local television reporters tell the tale of their peers in days past keeping a faded teddy bear handy; when children were injured in car wrecks, they could toss the stuffed animal on the ground and shoot footage of it to ensure "poignant" images for their newscasts. Murders, shootings and other violent incidents dominate local newscasts and newspapers in many American cities.

But war is fundamentally different. Death occurs on a greater scale and against the backdrop of clashing geopolitical agendas.

Bush administration officials have expressed increasing frustration with the media. The graphic accounts and pictures, coupled with stories that question why victories have not come more quickly, have presented an inaccurate account of the war, they say.

Meanwhile, some analysts say they believe Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is attempting to hold on just long enough that American support for the conflict wanes. The use of such images on the airwaves and in print is a significant part of that strategy.

Who decides

News editors and executives say they are making their decisions daily, often declining to run the most graphic shots. Last Thursday, The Sun published a photograph by staff photographer John Makely of a dead Iraqi soldier, his face obscured. The New York Times, Newsday and USA Today are among the newspapers that have printed graphic shots of dead Iraqi fighters on their front pages last week.

"We're trying to portray every aspect of the war that we can," says James Dooley, director of photography for Newsday, based in Long Island, N.Y. "I don't think we've shied away at all from showing injury or death. We think it's part of showing that visually."

Last Sunday, CNN and the Fox News Channel showed still photographs of the dead Americans depicted on Iraqi television, with faces obscured. ABC News President David Westin was among those most adamant against showing any image of the American dead. Like several of his peers, Westin was reacting to the way in which an Iraqi soldier was propping up the heads of those killed to make their faces visible.

But the network has shown pictures of dead Iraqi soldiers since then and, a spokesman says, will likely depict dead Americans in the future. "We endeavor not to identify specific people and take video footage from a respectful distance while trying to reflect the cost of battle," says ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider.

While he says some discretion is necessary, author Bowden says the objections to the broadcast of violent images by the U.S. media overlook the near certainty that they will be available elsewhere -- online, or on satellite channels from abroad.

Violence is inescapable, he concludes: "I think it's more an incursion on people's taste. War is about battle and people being killed."

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