Four Years Ago, Outing Raised Questions About Images of War

By: E&P Staff

As the world marks the fourth anniversary of the Fall of Saddam — amid reports of continuing horrific violence in Iraq — we thought it would be valuable to reprint longtime E&P columnist Steve Outing’s commentary that appeared immediately after the U.S. took Baghdad.

It raised many questions about coverage of the war and the media’s refusal to show Americans the true “ghastly” nature of that conflict — which has continued, with some exceptions, to this date.
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By Steve Outing

If you’ve followed the Iraq war via American media, for the most part you’ve been shielded from images of the worst horrors of modern combat. If instead you get your news from media in other countries, it’s likely that you’ve been less protected from the “unpleasantness” of war.

As has been the case with most wars, this time around the American public rarely saw the truly ghastly visual images coming out of the conflict. The visual focus of most news media has been on the success of the American military and the wow factor of its high-tech weapons, and not as much on the suffering of the Iraqi civilian population. Most of the images we’ve seen in American media in the last few weeks have been non-controversial — bomb explosions that look like fireworks, not close-up images of the human effects of those bombs; and images of soldiers helping Iraqi citizens or stopping them from looting, rather than Iraqis grieving over the bodies of loved ones.

While there are some legitimate reasons for traditional media like newspapers and television to shield the public from children with severed arms and dead Iraqi soldiers lying in ditches, there’s no excuse for online media not to show the full picture of war and its aftermath. Online news operations can operate by different rules — and I would argue that they should.

An accurate picture of war

Last week, Kelly McBride, an ethics faculty member of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, wrote a column about a front-page image published by The Oregonian of Portland. The photo showed an Iraqi man grieving over the coffins of his six children, wife, parents, and brothers — all killed inadvertently in an American air raid. The paper’s editors got a lot of flak from some readers about choosing to publish this sad image as the dominant element on the front page. The paper was accused of being unpatriotic by playing up the grieving Iraqi, rather than the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch, which happened on the same day. Some readers said they canceled their subscriptions to the paper.

That reaction points to an issue that every American news editor understands: The public doesn’t have much of a stomach for truly unpleasant, real-life images, even though they may accurately reflect the current reality. It’s the reason that the shocking images of bodies falling and people jumping from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 — powerful visuals of the horror of that day — were carried by very few print publications, but more frequently by news Web sites.

I think the Oregonian editors made the right choice in publishing and emphasizing that photograph of the grieving Iraqi. Whether Americans like it or not, their tax dollars are paying for what’s happening in Iraq — and innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire and inadvertently killed and injured by American forces. That’s reality. News organizations have a responsibility to show the consequences of the U.S. government going to war; citizens have a right to know everything that’s happening under their name.

Alas, the Oregonian’s photo choice is unusual. Most editors don’t want to upset public sensibilities by publishing graphic images showing the true pain of war. They don’t want to upset readers by printing photos of the mangled corpses of children or slain American soldiers (or bodies plummeting from a building attacked by terrorists).

The argument is a simple one: We can’t publish a horrific image in the newspaper, because kids might see it at the breakfast table; incensed readers will cancel subscriptions. We can’t run graphic video on the newscast because we can’t prevent young, impressionable children from viewing it.

While I’m of the mind that American media does society a disservice by self-censoring graphic war images, I’ll accept (but don’t agree with) the judgment of newspaper editors and TV news directors about what they deem is appropriate for American breakfast tables and TV screens at dinnertime.

But to return to the subject of this column, online news media, I think it’s poor judgment for online news directors to abide by the same rules of “taste and decorum” during wartime.

Real violence vs. Hollywood’s

Can online editors break convention and show the graphic images of war — what’s really happening — without self-censorship and sugar-coating the reality? The first argument for a “yes” answer is that showing violent, disturbing images is as “American as apple pie.” Hollywood has been serving up graphic violence for decades. Scenes in the popular film Saving Private Ryan — such as a soldier bleeding and dying while his comrades administer morphine — are far more disturbing and graphic than anything seen on actual news programs. It can easily be argued that the American public is well accustomed to violent images, so it’s not such a stretch to expect news consumers to accept graphic (but not gratuitous) images that are relevant to explaining the reality of a news story.

Because it’s an on-demand medium, the Web has an advantage over other media when it comes to presenting powerful, disturbing images of news events. Turn the page of a newspaper and there’s a mangled corpse: It’s a shock because there was no warning about what was coming. With the Web, editors can offer up warning labels to protect online users who are sensitive to disturbing images. The Web is not like a newspaper. It is not like television. Web news does not have to be “in your face.”

As I argue for online media to “loosen up” with horrific, powerful images, I don’t mean to do it without regard for sensitive readers. Don’t run a graphic image on your home page where anyone can happen on it unaware, but rather refer to it — either with a headline or a closely cropped piece of the image that’s not offensive. The viewer must consciously acknowledge the disturbing nature of what he is about to see — essentially “opt in” to see the photo. For online slide shows, provide a warning and a way for a viewer to opt out of viewing the disturbing photo(s).

Following those guidelines, there’s no reason for online editors to hold back on what images they publish. Simply follow your instincts and publish only those graphic images that tell an important story in a powerful way. Don’t publish to shock; publish to inform and educate.

The recent controversy over footage aired by the Arab satellite news channel Al-Jazeera points to the shortcomings of mainstream American media. Al-Jazeera in the last few weeks aired video of two dead British servicemen and captured American troops paraded by the Iraqis, and in general ran far more harrowing images of civilian casualties than did Western media outlets. While much of the world’s media also ran Al-Jazeera’s footage, U.S. media held back.

You could argue that U.S. media outlets did us a favor by keeping such unpleasantness from our consciousness. I look at it differently: American media downplayed some horrible parts of the war by only telling us the story in words, but not showing us the available controversial images because of the perceived sensitivity of the American public. The rest of the world was better informed.

Why online media should be different

News Web sites can differentiate themselves from traditional media by publishing these powerful, if upsetting images. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Online is the one mass-reach news medium that can take the liberty of telling and showing the full story, no matter how unsettling, horrendous, or controversial it may be. By being “looser” about carrying images that might be offensive to some segment of the audience, news sites can have an edge over traditional media. They can proudly proclaim: We will tell and show you the full story that other media are afraid will upset you.

If any online news editors reading this agree with my perspective, they may think that it will have to apply to the next big news event — since the majority of major combat apparently is over in Iraq. On the contrary, as a new wave of reporters enters Iraq to tell the post-war and reconstruction stories, many unsettling human stories will emerge — of living through the U.S. bombing, of living under a brutal Iraqi regime.

As new, sometimes controversial stories and images emerge from Iraq, I hope that online media will recognize that it is different — and not hide parts of a disturbing reality. If another major terrorist attack occurs, I hope that online operations will take the opportunity to be better than their traditional-media colleagues. I hope they tell the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may make the news audience or how hard the images emerging from the event may be to look at.

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