A FEMA spokesman said Thursday that the agency hopes news organizations won’t show dead bodies as part of their coverage of Hurricane Katrina, but acknowledged that such coverage decisions lie with editors, not government officials.
“Decisions about running photos are up to members of the news media,” said Mark Pfeifle. “Out of respect for the deceased [and their families] … FEMA has asked that images not be shown. But it’s up to the media whether they’re shown or not.”
“There’s not a directive,” he said. “It’s just a request that FEMA people have made to members of the media.”
This clarification follows a Reuters report earlier in the week that a FEMA spokeswoman said the agency “does not want the news media to take photographs of the dead as they are recovered from the flooded New Orleans area.”
Pfeifle said FEMA does not prohibit the collection of these images. However, the agency is not making it easy for journalists to photograph them, either.
A Reuters reporter was refused space on a FEMA rescue boat in New Orleans this week. A FEMA spokeswoman told Reuters later that the reporter was not allowed to join rescuers because they needed space on their boats.
This is not the first time FEMA has made such a request, Pfeifle said. It is a typical agency response, made out of concern for the dignity of the deceased and their families, he said.
“We don’t want … the situation to occur where an individual who’s searching for their loved one … finds out the news of a loved one’s passing on the television or in a newspaper,” he said.
The request is not something that the agency plans to enforce.
“How does one enforce it? It’s up to members of the media to print or not print a photo,” Pfeifle said. “There’s nothing to prevent the member of the media from taking photos. That’s the First Amendment.”
As word of the request made its way through the journalism community this week, many have reacted to the idea of censoring images, including Poynter faculty. Here is what they said:
Visual Journalism Group Leader
I am strongly opposed to a government organization making such a request and even more disappointed by any attempts to enforce it. This is very similar to our national policy prohibiting the photographing of fallen United States soldiers — killed in the line of duty in the Middle East.
This appears to be an overt attempt by FEMA to minimize the visual impact of this tragedy. The public needs to see the impact of our inadequate planning and deficient response to this national disaster. It is the media’s responsibility to report on and present this horrific story with compassion and sensitivity for the stakeholders.
Leadership & Management Group Leader
Leaders of news organizations understand that they are doing more than gathering today’s news of Hurricane Katrina, they are documenting history. Whatever words and images they record are powerful testimony to the many truths of this tragedy. One of those truths is the horrendous loss of life. I know of no reputable news organization that seeks to show the most graphic views of the dead –- but I know many that struggle to responsibly and respectfully chronicle the human toll of a hurricane and a country’s response to it.
News leaders must make clear to the government agencies that seek to narrow the public’s view –- and to citizens who demand information -– that the role of journalists is to earnestly and assertively gather all possible data –- and that includes pictures that memorialize the event. And those journalists –- not the government –- should determine how to sensitively yet honestly share what they have recorded with the citizens of this democracy.
This is not a time for newsroom leaders to be intimidated by partisans of any stripe, especially those who take cover by damning the messengers of Katrina’s story. It is a time to continue the courageous journalism that has surfaced from the flooded streets, shattered homes and broken lives that are Katrina’s legacy. If not, what will history say of all of us?
Ethics Group Leader
This is incredibly disturbing on so many levels. I’m very cynical about FEMA’s motives. I recently wrote that I don’t think newsrooms can tell the truth of this story if they don’t show some bodies. My fear was self-censorship. Many newsrooms have policies that forbid displaying photos of dead bodies, more specifically dead Americans. (We show dead foreigners all the time.) So I was worried about self-censorship, for fear of community backlash. Now I’m worried about real censorship, because FEMA is tired of being questioned by journalists and the public.
Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values
I believe it’s fair to say that we would challenge any restrictions that keep journalists and photojournalists from having meaningful access to cover all important element of this story and the recovery of bodies certainly falls in that category. We would challenge any directives and orders from the federal government or other officials that restrict photojournalists from taking pictures or videotaping the recovery of bodies.
Clearly there is an important “watchdog” role for the journalists to honor as the officials find and recover bodies. We should be there to observe and record what is taking place, to hold the government officials accountable and to accurately and fairly tell the story of what is happening.
To be sure, the officials face a difficult and delicate challenge in finding and recovering bodies. Journalists should make sure we don’t make their job more difficult. We should not get in their way. We should show great respect for these workers. We should show great respect for the dead. We should show great respect for the families of the victims.
But, we can do all of that in a professional and compassionate manner. We need to be there to observe and record this piece of such a major story. The photojournalists will be required to show courage and compassion, skill and sensitivity in deciding what pictures to take and how to take those pictures. Then, the editors and producers back at the paper and the stations and networks will have to make equally thoughtful, skillful, sensitive decisions on what still photos and what video to use and how to use it.
Among the ethical land mines, of course, is the concern over live coverage of the recovery of bodies. The television stations and networks need to be exceptionally vigilant in their oversight during this stage of the reporting as the recovery of bodies increases. News executives should apply extra oversight to make sure that they have the chance to make sound decisions on what video to show viewers. They should restrict live coverage of the recovery of bodies and/or build in time delays in the live coverage to ensure that there is time for proper news judgment and ethical decision-making.