Showing horrors of war

Editors back away from worst images


April 02, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Confronted with horrifying images of dead Americans, news executives this week scrambled to balance concerns about upsetting readers and viewers with the obligation to report the news in its full enormity.

Photographs and video footage began arriving in newsrooms late Wednesday morning depicting the attack on U.S. civilian workers by Iraqis in Fallujah, an anti-American stronghold. They showed Iraqis beating the remnants of charred corpses with shovels and children stomping on the bodies of the dead, jubilant young Iraqis sitting inside the Americans' burned-out SUVs and throngs cheering the killings.

"This story 100 percent needs to be told. But how much needs to be shown without having genuinely disgusting things forced down [viewers'] throats?" MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann said yesterday. "The videotape makes you feel that you're there."

His primetime cable news program, Countdown, relied on wide-angle shots, limited in length, of bodies hanging from a bridge accompanied by narration from Iraq by NBC reporter Richard Engel.

Initially, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel concentrated on the anti-American celebrations rather than the violence itself. In their evening newscasts, the major television networks - ABC, NBC, and CBS - aired footage of the violence but digitally obscured the most graphic details of the killings. CBS anchor Dan Rather warned viewers that the images weren't appropriate for children, while ABC's Peter Jennings cautioned his audience about the force of the footage. Later, CNN showed viewers more of the violence itself. In the past, American networks have more readily shown corpses of people from other countries - including slain soldiers and dictators - than of American civilians or soldiers.

"You couldn't whitewash the event too much, because it was so astonishing and striking," said David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "But it took a little thought. This was a complicated story - Americans had been murdered and dismembered. Not all the family members had been informed."

In October 1993, similarly televised attacks on captured American service members in Somalia deeply shook U.S. public opinion and are said to have influenced the Clinton administration's decision to withdraw troops from that country. Bohrman and other journalists said that as they quickly made news decisions yesterday they were conscious of the effect the images might have.

During the first 24 hours after the attacks, however, the coverage from the cable news channels veered from sobering to heartwarming to peculiar.

The three cable channels devoted significant time Wednesday afternoon to the safe return of an abducted Wisconsin college student and the appearance of entertainer Michael Jackson, accused of child molestation, at an AIDS-related event on Capitol Hill. CNN's Larry King dwelled on the Scott Peterson murder trial and the illness of former television evangelist Tammy Faye Messner.

And by yesterday morning, the network news shows had already begun to emphasize other - less disturbing - subjects. Both ABC News' Good Morning America and NBC's Today Show began yesterday's news shows with stories on the return of Audrey Seiler, the Wisconsin undergraduate.

Later yesterday, CNN's Bohrman said his channel and others should have spent more time on the rampage in Fallujah. "Everybody got distracted by the story in Wisconsin waiting for a press conference [about the kidnapping] for three hours."

For the past two days, many violent images of the attacks in Fallujah were circulated on Internet sites and non-American satellite television channels; in general, U.S. editors exercised more discretion. Newspapers often showed more explicit images than television news programs.

On their front pages yesterday, USA Today and The Washington Post published a photograph of a crowd using shoes to beat a corpse burned almost beyond recognition as a human form. The Sun, like The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and a sizeable number of other newspapers, selected for the front page a photo depicting an exultant crowd standing before a bridge. In the background, the limp bodies of dead American civilians were visible, dangling from the beams of the bridge.

"In our opinion, not to run it would not have been reflective of the reality of the story," said Paul Moore, a deputy managing editor for The Sun. "We knew it would be offensive to some readers."

Indeed, readers objected: The Sun received about 60 phone calls, e-mails and letters from readers protesting its decision. Approaches differed throughout the country. The San Jose Mercury News, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Boston Globe chose somewhat less explicit photographs - for example, the shell of one of the SUVs aflame as an Iraqi youth held a sign declaring Fallujah a cemetery for Americans.

In San Jose, managing editor David Satterfield said his newspaper weighed the force of the front page on readers as they rose in the morning. Viewers were told in a front-page caption that more violent images could be found on the newspaper's inside pages. "I could see how these photos would cause some strong and broad reactions among some readers, especially at the breakfast table," Satterfield said yesterday. "We frankly don't like to show dead bodies, particularly on the front page."

But other editors disagreed. Cliff Teutsch, managing editor of the Hartford Courant, which, like The Sun, is a Tribune Co. newspaper, said the picture that included the bodies hanging from the bridge "told the story of the day.

"It's our operating premise to tell it like it is and to show it like it is," Teutsch said yesterday. "It showed the crowd, the emotion - and what they did."

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