Amateurs have opened door to horrifying views of war

Disturbing images have news outlets grappling with how much to show

Media: Analysis

May 16, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The images seem to cascade into our homes, each more horrifying than the last:

Photographs of slain Americans, their corpses mutilated by jeering crowds of Iraqis.

Digital pictures of Iraqi prisoners being sexually humiliated by laughing U.S. troops.

A videotape of a young American entrepreneur being beheaded by Islamic militants.

Should these images greet newspaper readers each morning? Should they be shown on television? Online? Can the news be reported accurately and thoroughly without invading the privacy of the dead or imprisoned, or costing the lives of Americans abroad?

The flood of images - many taken by amateurs - arrives courtesy of the intersection of two consumer trends. The Internet is now being used to share digital images taken with personal cameras, hand-held camcorders and even cell phones. That documentation, blurring the distinction between private and public realms, has unquestionably altered how professional journalists put together the news. And, at the same time, news executives are recognizing that the media is no longer able to serve as a collective filter. Much of the disturbing footage and pictures eventually finds a home somewhere else on the Web.

Late last week, the Radio-Television News Directors Association issued a set of detailed guidelines for the broadcast media to consider in using violent footage. It included only questions - no answers. "Anybody who thinks there's only one way to do this hasn't really thought this through," says Kevin Magee, vice president for programming at the Fox News Channel.

The Defense Department is currently confronting a dilemma born of the same roots: It is deciding whether to release all the hundreds of photographs of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, or wait for them to trickle out over the coming weeks and months and be circulated globally by online web sites.

Military's lost control

The Abu Ghraib prison story exploded late last month into a global scandal because CBS' 60 Minutes II aired photographs of Iraqi prisoners being mistreated - that were taken by the abusers themselves. Last week, several major broadcasters aired a freeze frame of one of Nicholas Berg's captors drawing a knife. The CBS Evening News showed Berg thrown to the ground. The online magazine Salon carried the full video of Berg's execution.

J.D. Lasica, senior editor for the Online Journalism Review, says the U.S. military has lost the ability to control the coverage of damaging events during the violence-plagued occupation of Iraq. Pictures of the soldiers' coffins, taken by a civilian contractor as an act of private protest, were ultimately published in the Seattle Times despite a ban by the Pentagon.

The photos of the coffins and the prison abuse "point up the power of ordinary citizens to take media into their own hands," Lasica says via e-mail. "These amateur photographs have become the iconic images of this war."

"This scandal could not have occurred four or five years ago, before citizens (including US troops) achieved the power to be visual reporters," Lasica writes. "There's no question that, but for the publication and airing of these photos, the reports of the prisoner abuse would have wound up buried on page A19."

That is, in fact, effectively where the story of the investigation appeared when it first was announced - without any details - back in mid-January, despite a detailed Associated Press account last fall of allegations of brutality by U.S. troops at the prison.

Perversion made visible

"Torture thrives on secrecy. That is the dark place into which it goes. And when nobody is looking, terrible things happen," the Chilean exile playwright Ariel Dorfman, who has written extensively about torture in his native country, said on ABC News' Nightline last week. "The reason why we're outraged by the photographs [from Abu Ghraib], when we should've been outraged all the time that we've known about all these things, is because it makes visible what is invisible. It brings to us the intimacy and the perversion that happens there, which happens far away from our eyes."

John Moody, a Fox News senior vice president, wrote in an online commentary last week that he regretted his channel's decision not to broadcast more explicit images of the charred and mutilated bodies of U.S. workers killed in Fallujah.

"Many TV networks, including Fox News, deemed the pictures too shocking to air. Fox also heavily censored a videotape of torture sessions carried out by Saddam's regime," Moody wrote. "In retrospect, that may have been a mistake. Without showing the charred bodies of Americans dangling in ignominy, or the lopped off-arms of justice Saddam-style, how can we judge the pictures we are now clucking over?"

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