Now that there are casualties in the war with Iraq, news organizations must decide whether or not to show images of dead U.S. soldiers.

Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite station, showed footage Sunday of what Iraqis claim are the bodies of U.S. soldiers. Some news reports said it appeared the soldiers were executed. A high-ranking U.S. officer who saw the broadcast labeled the scene disgusting.

Now U.S. news organizations must decide whether the public will see those images as well, and if so, how they will be handled. Unfortunately, those scenes may be only the beginning. These concerns will arise not only with U.S. casualties, but with coalition and Iraqi military and civilian casualties.

The question of whether to depict bodies is not new.

Domestically, crime scenes, disasters, the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Centers attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and most recently the human remains from the Columbia Shuttle disaster all forced journalists to grapple with this issue. We've written about this on Poynter Online, as well. Regarding 9/11, Poynter's Al Tompkins noted the need to think about the tone of the coverage and how graphic the pictures would be. (See sidebar for more related links).

This war complicates an already complex issue. In this case, there are concerns about the veracity of the images themselves and whether the news media is being used for propaganda purposes. And the dissemination of these images matters not only to the U.S., but to the international community. The impact becomes far more widespread.

On the military front, news organizations have dealt with images of death in different ways during the 20th century. Usually, news organizations refrained from using very graphic photos and videos.

The conflicts in Vietnam and Somalia stand out as two examples where some news organizations did show bodies. And those images have been credited with changing domestic opinion about our presence in those countries. George Esper, a former Associated Press correspondent in Vietnam, recounts the challenges journalists faced there. Some military analysts have been quoted as saying they believe Iraq hopes Al-Jazeera's broadcast of such images will have the same kind of impact on domestic opinion.

Whatever the reasons were for Al-Jazeera's actions, U.S. news organizations must make their own independent decisions about what they will show. But before doing so, they will want to ask themselves many questions that can help them make the best decisions for their viewers, readers and online users.

First, they will have to deal with some basic questions that address their ethical concerns and journalistic purpose. They need to ask questions that help them see if they're adhering to their journalistic principles.

Then they should begin asking more specific questions. Here are some possible questions to consider.

  • What do you know for sure about the photographs or video to which you have access?

  • What do you need to know?

  • What purpose would you have in showing such images?

  • What consequences do you foresee from depicting such images? 

Poynter's Bob Steele's ethics questions would be one place to start.

Think about the audience.

  • What will it want and/or need to see to understand such death?

  • What impact will images of death have on the audience?

  • Will such pictures help the audience understand the truth(s) of this war?

  • Will the images help make the audience more knowledgeable about this war?

In dealing with the graphic representations of war, Poynter's Roy Peter Clark wrote about the difference between realism and understatement and how powerful understatement can be. And Poynter's Kenny Irby noted in another context involving photos of death that issues of "privacy, taste, news value and potential harm" should be addressed by news organizations.

What news organizations decide about showing images of death will help or hinder the public's understanding of this war. They should avoid automatically showing, or refusing to show, such images.

Journalists need to think this issue through. By doing so they will be demonstrating respect for their highest traditions and for those who turn to them for news.