To Publish Or Not

Should newspapers publish photographs released by the White House of the dead Osama bin Laden, even if they are gruesome? The Washington Post has a thoughtful news report on the debate some newsrooms are having over whether to publish any photographs that are released.

White House aides are debating also what to do. According to the Post, President Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, says officials are worried about releasing such photos because: first, their disturbing nature per se, and, second, because of the danger they may inflame anti-American protest around the world and prompt a more violent Muslim backlash.

At the same time officials want to rebut skepticism among bin Laden’s supporters that his death is part of some American conspiracy.

But would publishing the pictures dissuade those who don’t want to believe: they could also maintain that the pictures are inaccurate and made up.

Surely, there is plenty of evidence around to prove the U.S. claim: for example, the testimony to Pakistani officials of bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter, who witnessed her father’s death.

The traditional news media is confronting a similar question of sensitivity. As the Post points out, U.S. newspapers consider themselves family publications – the kids can see.

If the White House releases pictures, they are going to be all over the web and carried by traditional media in other countries: Latin America, for example, where the media have fewer qualms. If U.S. newspapers don’t publish, do they highlight the fact that their relevance is increasingly less in the digital age? If the do publish for that reason, do they debase themselves?

Surely news is news, though, and the pictures are the very definition of news. Publishing would not be in these circumstances gratuitous: there is real journalistic value.

Back in the mid-1980s when I was on the Sunday Telegraph an intense debate was prompted when an excellent reporter, Walter Ellis, managed to secure photographs of the bodies of two British soldiers who had been killed in Northern Ireland after blundering accidentally into a massive Irish Republican funeral.

The soldiers had been stripped to their underpants, slapped around and then shot. One of the bodies was left in the shape of a human cross.

After much soul-searching it was decided that however gruesome the pictures were, there was journalistic value to publishing. The photographs helped illustrate the hatred and violence of the Northern Ireland troubles and also showed how no one in the funeral crowd lifted a hand to help the soldiers or protested their ill-treatment.

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