Journalist Groups Protest FEMA Ban on Photos of Dead

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By: E&P Staff

Forced to defend what some critics consider its slow response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Tuesday it does not want the news media to take photographs of the dead as they are recovered from New Orleans.

FEMA, which is leading the rescue efforts, rejected requests from journalists to accompany rescue boats as they went out to search for storm victims, Reuters reported.

A FEMA spokeswoman told the wire service that space was needed on the rescue boats and assured Reuters that “the recovery of the victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect.”

“We have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media,” the spokeswoman told Reuters via e-mail.

On Wednesday, journalist groups protested the move.

“It’s impossible for me to imagine how you report a story whose subject is death without allowing the public to see images of the subject of the story,” Larry Siems of the PEN American Center told Reuters.

Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said: “The notion that, when there’s very little information from FEMA, that they would even spend the time to be concerned about whether the reporting effort is up to its standards of taste is simply mind-boggling. You cannot report on the disaster and give the public a realistic idea of how horrible it is if you don’t see that there are bodies as well.”

FEMA’s policy of excluding media from recovery expeditions in New Orleans is “an invitation to chaos,” Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a part of Columbia University’s journalism school, told Reuters.

“This is about managing images and not public taste or human dignity,” Rosenstiel said. He said FEMA’s refusal to take journalists along on recovery missions meant that media workers would go on their own.

Rosenstiel also noted that U.S. media, especially U.S. television outlets, are generally reluctant to show corpses.

“By and large, American television is the most sanitized television in the world,” he said. “They are less likely to show bodies, they are less likely to show graphic images of the dead than any television in the world.”

There is also a question of what the American PEN Center’s Siems called “international equity,” noting that American news outlets cover stories around the world showing the effects of natural disasters and wars in graphic detail.

But Mark Tapscott, a former editor at the Washington Times newspaper who now deals with media issues at the Heritage Foundation, said the FEMA decision did not amount to censorship.

“Let’s not make a common decency issue into a censorship issue,” Tapscott told Reuters. “Nobody wants to wake up in the morning and see their dead uncle on the front page. That’s just common decency.”

After this article ran, Tapscott contacted E&P to add the following quote Reuters left out of its article, an omission Tapscott said allowed for a “misrepresentation” of his words.

“The biggest news stories often have dead bodies and cannot be fully reported without showing those bodies in some way,” Tapscott wrote via e-mail. “The question is how that is done, from a distance with no personally identifying detail as FOX News and MSNBC have been doing all week, or up close, grisly and sensationally.”

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