March 25, 2003

POWS: Photos of War

Predictably, a debate is raging over the propriety of publishing (or airing) photographs of the U.S. soldiers held as POWs by the Iraq.

Howard Kurtz reported today in the Washington Post: "A number of major newspapers refused to run Iraqi pictures of American prisoners of war yesterday, even as several television networks dropped their earlier reticence and aired at least a few seconds of the chilling videotape." The Post was among the papers that did not run the photos. [ See the photos here on ]

This issue arises every time a major news event produces a harsh photograph that, while factual, assaults human sensibility.

In 1995, for example, a photograph of a firefighter cradling the limp body of a burned, bloodied 1-year-old child from the ruins of the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City was spurned by some newspapers (including my own at the time) as too gruesome for the front page, while other publications, such as Newsweek, put it on their covers. The photograph later won the Pulitzer for spot photography.

Earlier, in 1993, newspapers or news magazines that published a photograph of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged by a jeering mob through the dusty streets of Mogadishu drew invective from some corners of an incensed American public.

In those cases, as well as in the current conflict in Iraq, I favor publishing over self-censoring. In an open society, more information, however disturbing to the norm, is better than less. A free press is obligated to provide that information. The right to publish also bears the reponsibility to publish.

An essay in the Boston Review by Susie Linfield examines the role of photography in today's world of omni-media. She writes:

"In our image-glutted culture, our connection to photographs - and especially to those that record atrocities, wars, and other manmade disasters - resembles a bad but inescapable marriage in which one unhappy partner distrusts yet depends upon the other."

And then concludes:

"Photojournalism shows us that human beings do things we would like to think are not human. It stretches our definition of humanity, though often in ways that grievously wound us. Can we look at the world and still love it? This is the question that photojournalism poses. Can we stare at what James Agee called "the cruel radiance of what is" without shielding our eyes? Can we acknowledge the reality of the world we have made, without forgetting that a different one is possible-and necessary? At this particular point, questions, not answers, may be photojournalism's greatest gift."

As journalists, we know truth is elusive and answers are often scarce. Questions abound, though, and we have the obligation to raise them, even if the means of doing so seem unpalatable. Newspapers, and networks, should not withdraw from the need to report the whole war in Iraq. The public deserves the entire story; the First Amendment demands it.

 Boston Review Capture the Moment
 Howard Kurtz Too Painful to Publish?
 Philadelphia Inquirer War carnage presents ethical dilemma to networks
 Christian Science Monitor War isn't pretty, nor is news of it
 Joan Ryan, S.F. Chronicle Of sensitivity and censorship
 Wall St. Journal War Produces Rift in Media Between U.S., Other Nations
 Washington Post The Illustrated Horror of Conflict
 Toronto Globe and Mail 'It's a tough call'

Posted by Tim Porter at March 25, 2003 09:17 AM

I agree with you, and some of the best images I have seen were only available to me because I happen to work for a newspaper.

And it's not just with war and "sensitive" images -- newspapers act as a giant filter that collect everything that is interesting, real, disturbing, etc. and remove anything that might offend readers. What the readers are left with is a boring, dry product, dueling spokesmen and the nagging curiosity of why no one is interested in their product.

It's why newspapers act like puritans when sex is mentioned, why gays don't get covered and why sex crime victims are treated as if they have something to be ashamed of. The world, as reported by newspapers, is a very dull and sanitary place, especially when compared to the world depicted in movies, books, television documentaries and people's everyday lives.

I think part of the reason why people continue to work in newspapers, why they continue to suffer low wages and long hours, is that they get addicted to information: they love the off the record tidbits, the scandelous stories and being in the know, yet all of that stuff gets buried with colleagues in a pint at the local bar after deadline.

Newspapers, imho, will not succeed until they figure out how to share all the solid, important information that they're keeping to themselves.

Posted by: Cope on March 25, 2003 04:22 PM
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