A survey by the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) has found that most editors and readers believe photographic images of death and violence shouldn't be airbrushed out of the news.
The respondents were shown five pictures, all controversial and all shot within the last year or so. One, of a grieving mother surrounded by dead children, captures the devastation of the tsunami. A second, of an assassination in broad daylight in Baghdad, illustrates the chaos overrunning that country's streets. A third shows flag-draped coffins-pictures banned by the Pentagon for nearly 14 years, ostensibly out of respect for the families of the dead. A fourth depicts comrades caring for a badly wounded GI in Iraq. The fifth shows an American, kneeling, moments before he was decapitated.
The responses interested me. Overwhelming majorities of readers and editors alike, for example, don't accept the Pentagon's rationale for whitewashing war's human cost by banishing photographers from the Air Force base where the war dead are brought home. On the other hand, most editors and readers expressed hesitancy to show anything of the horror of a captive's beheading, even the moments leading up to it.
But to me, the research seemed to have a glaring hole. Selecting photographs or other graphics for publication is not merely a matter of taste-there also is a key political undercurrent in contemporary news play.
Stark images of death and destruction filled the front page and newscasts after the recent Asian tsunami, whether audiences liked it or not. They belonged there, I believe, both to inform the public and engage it in an event too remote for most to grasp. The outpouring of financial support grew in part because the coverage was honest.
I believe that disturbing and even shocking photos also belong equally on the front page of papers and at the top of the evening news when the subject is Iraq. But most of the time, such images are missing or muted. Why? Because war is unsettling, often horrifying. That's reality. The deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians is in large part our doing. Let's stop hiding them.
On the heels of the tsunami, leading newspapers ran deep inside their news sections a powerful picture of an Iraqi child whose parents had just been killed by American troops at a checkpoint. Blood and tears ran down her face. I wanted to learn more about this girl, her family's story, her fate. Had she been a tsunami victim her story, like that of a baby who survived and whose story became the symbol of all those who had lost children, would have taken on a life of its own. But she was an Iraqi civilian and her story flickered off the radar screen as quickly and innocuously as it flickered on. I neither read nor heard anything more.
There's irony here. We cannot prevent tsunamis. But, we can prevent war. Unless, that is, news outlets censor themselves. What is not covered and not shown can cause at least as much harm as what is. These gaps in the coverage, if anything, seem to be growing larger.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 11.