Editorial Discretion in Publishing Images

This Memorial Day is a particularly special one for two reasons: we are at war in Iraq and the memorial for the World War II generation is being dedicated on the national mall. Those Americans who stood fast against Fascist forces in World War II have been dubbed the “Greatest Generation.” Now there will always be arguments about what constitutes the “greatest.” How does the WW II generation compare to the generation of our Revolutionary War period? How about the 600,000 who died during the American Civil War? It is the sort of question that historians love to argue about. However, it is clear that part of what made the WW II era so unique was the sense of unity and commonality of purpose. There were sincere disagreements, whether to devote more resources to the war in Europe or to the Pacific theater. However, such disagreements never devolved to disarray and self doubt. Coverage by the press played an important role in maintaining this unity.

During WW II reporters often accompanied troops. Reporters saw their role in winning the war as consistent with their roles as reporters. It is no accident that press coverage was more favorable in the Iraq War when the journalists were embedded with the troops and implicitly shared the same experiences. While embedded in both wars, journalists were censored about details of time and location. However, during WW II, there were conscious efforts on the part of reporters to publish images of the war that did not undermine morale at home. That is part of the reason that you saw images of a flag raising at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. It is not that there was a deliberate effort at distortion, to put only an heroic face on the war. Rather there was the realization that context and perspective were important and that graphic images of carnage might distort perspective. Appropriate selection of images and stories were seen as necessary for fidelity to the truth, not as an evasion of the facts.

Words are very powerful and can passionately describe events. However, images have a unique ability to capture an emotion or situation that can serve as a permanent and poignant metaphor for good or for ill. Moreover, during any war there are many images showing pain and joy, viciousness and valor, despondency and elation, anger and compassion. The images that are selected for broadcast and publication can serve to frame the political debate.

In World War II, for example, papers ran photographs of images like the one showing the marines at Iwo Jima . They did not (and perhaps they should have) shown Japanese-Americans looking out forlornly from behind barbed wire at internment camps. Both speak about an important truth of WW II. Raising the flag over Iwo Jima illustrates American courage, while the interment camps represent the worst in bigotry. The noblest images were allowed to frame WW II.

By contrast, the Vietnam War is now remembered in three negative images: the execution of a member of the Viet Cong by Nguyen Ngoc Loan of the South Vietnamese Army; the little girl running, after her clothes had been burned off by napalm; and Americans scurrying onto the last helicopter leaving the American Embassy at the end of American involvement.

Journalists and editors have a duty, of course, to report the facts and they are unrestrained in their efforts to do so. However, just because the press is unrestrained does not mean they do not have an obligation to show restraint. There are many facts and many photographs that can be assembled to tell a story. Many different stories can be told by combining the raw data of facts and images. And while the stories and images may all be accurate, without proper context and proportion they may not, in a fuller sense, be true.

It is the thesis here that the saturation airing of photographs showing prison abuse at Abu Ghraib prison are an attempt to drive public sentiment out of proportion to the entire context of events in Iraq. Breaking the story on the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison probably did not require publishing the images. Almost certainly, a written or spoken story would have provided the facts without the emotional sensationalism of the photographs. If imagery was necessary to draw appropriate attention to the issue (remember the military had months before publicly announced the investigation of abuse charges), certainly only a couple of photographs needed to be shown. We did not need the parade of images day after day: images that may put American lives in danger and make negotiation with allies and adversaries more difficult. Is it not right for the news media to weigh these considerations in their coverage?

Were these images repeatedly broadcast and published under the pecuniary pressures of ratings and circulation? Were new images dribbled out daily as a part of considered journalistic judgment or used as means to make an anti-war or anti-military statement?

In due course, there will be many words documenting the Iraq War. However, much of what we remember will be determined by images permanently imprinted on our minds now. For the Iraq War, will the images remembered be those of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse, those of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down by joyous Iraqis, or those of bones being exhumed from SaddamÂ’s mass graves that claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis? Much depends on what pictures a thrust before us day after day, the choices made by editors and journalist who are said to be writing the “first draft of history.”

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