Offensive Beheading Images Are Newsworthy

By: Joe Strupp

Sadly, abductions of soldiers and other foreigners working in Iraq — and their videotaped executions — are becoming more common. Not satisfied with simply kidnapping and humiliating their victims on camera, the evil cowards must provide images of their brutal deaths.

With each occurrence, disgust, anger and trauma are obvious reactions. But they also provoke a debate over how to report these events. With videos and photos of these brutal murders widely available on the Internet, these sick images are easy to find, if you are so inclined; even if you’re not, they are hard to miss if you spend a lot of time surfing the Web.

Still, few newspapers have chosen to run images of businessman Nick Berg, engineer Paul Johnson, or South Korean interpreter Kim Sun Il, all of whom were beheaded before rolling cameras with the distinct purpose of sickening or intimidating Westerners.

In a Los Angeles Times story Wednesday, Tom Kunkel, president of American Journalism Review and dean of journalism at the University of Maryland, said “any news outlet — or any private individual for that matter — who makes available footage of the actual beheadings is, to my mind, an accessory to the crime itself.”

What an outrageous statement! This is the same shoot-the-messenger mentality that has too long diverted attention away from those who make news and on to those who report it. Yes, overuse of photos of beheadings and prison abuse — such as what occurred at Abu Ghraib — can be criticized. But to blame a newspaper or broadcast outlet for the crimes perpetrated in these images is unfair and a cheap shot.

Does the gruesome nature of these murders, or their intent as propaganda, make them any less newsworthy? The journalistic answer is no. News is news and if the beheadings of these victims are news, than the images of those beheadings are a part of it.

Recently, editors and columnists at the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News and Florida Today in Melbourne explained to readers why they chose not to run such photos.
“Most people could picture the pain and torture Berg suffered without seeing the actual footage or picture,” Terry Eberle, executive editor of Florida Today wrote in a column several weeks ago explaining why he didn’t publish the Berg photo. “I thought it was an easy call to make.” But Eberle elaborated that some readers disagreed with him, citing one person who phoned to say “he wanted everyone to see the violence and the kind of people we’re fighting.”

In San Antonio, Editorial Page Editor Lynell Burkett weighed in with a column this past Sunday detailing how she found photos of Berg and Johnson on the Web and thought about running them in light of the recent Kim Sun Il death, but declined. “Those who want to view such images can find them on Web sites,” she wrote. “But I don’t think they want to view them over breakfast in the morning paper.”

The Dallas Morning News appears to be one of the few papers that went forth with a photo, running an image of Berg’s head being held up after his decapitation, but with the head blacked out. The image ran on the editorial page, not the news section.

“The purpose in running it wasn’t to be gruesome at all,” said Keven Ann Willey, Morning News editorial page editor. “It was to drive home that these are the types of terrorists we’re dealing with.”

I’m the first to say that editors have the right, and responsibility, to carefully choose which photos go into their pages. We all know that still images — sometimes more so than video — can have strong emotional impact. That is what makes them such valuable journalistic tools.

But the kind of fallout that has come recently from newspapers’ use of photos is disturbing. Before the beheading debate, there was a backlash over running photos showing abuse at Abu Ghraib, particularly against The Washington Post, which first published a number of the pictures.

Many accused the Post of running the images in an effort to make the U.S. military look bad, while not running shots of attacks on innocent civilians or Americans, such as those who were beheaded.

The job of a newspaper — or any news organization — is to report the news, warts and all. That means treating each event with the importance it deserves.

Perhaps a newspaper does not have to spread the grisly images across the front page. There are ways to run photos smaller, or inside, and provide a warning to readers. But I would rather err on the side of giving readers — and viewers — too much information, and visual back-up, than not enough. Too often, we worry about being labeled offensive. We should worry more about censoring the realities, such as the flag-draped coffins of returning dead soldiers.

If you look at the history of journalism and its most important photographic images, most involved emotional — often offensive — pictures. From the haunting uncredited 1935 Associated Press photo of a black man lynched in Florida to the 1972 Huynh Cong Ut image of a young girl fleeing a napalm attack in South Vietnam, which won a Pulitzer Prize, the brutal reality is often what makes the news the news.

So before we attack the news business for giving the public the complete story — with realistic photos — let’s remember the role of a newspaper: not to please those who find some aspects of reality offensive, or to assuage those who see a bias in giving light to some images of world events, but to tell it like it is. Again, warts and all.

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