There is considerable controversy about the decision by the Associated Press to distribute a photograph of a Marine killed in combat in Afghanistan. I’ve written extensively about war coverage over the years, and I spoke with MSNBC on Friday about the news organization’s decision in this case.
Based on what I know, the Associated Press went through a purposeful, thoughtful process in deciding to distribute this photo, and I believe that the AP’s decision was journalistically sound and ethically justifiable.
Importantly, the Associated Press photo is accompanied by a substantive, sensitive AP story that recounts the battle in which Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard was wounded. That story also tells us a good deal about Bernard, including comments from his father and fellow Marines in his squad. Together, the story and the photograph paint a more complete picture of this fallen Marine.
The AP’s decision was undoubtedly made more difficult by an important step it took in determining if, how and when to distribute the photo. The AP appropriately sought input from the Bernard family as essential stakeholders. Family members viewed the images taken by AP photographer Julie Jacobson. According to an AP statement, “Bernard’s father after seeing the image of his mortally wounded son said he opposed its publication, saying it was disrespectful to his son’s memory.”
Certainly the AP must give very serious consideration to Mr. Bernard’s thoughts and his wishes. Yet, no matter how important that request from the father, the final decision sits with the AP. It means the journalists had to have a compelling journalistic purpose and an overriding ethical justification to go against the family’s wishes.
I’m not surprised that the AP’s decision to distribute the photo and the decision by some news organizations to publish it has stirred considerable controversy. Almost every time journalists show images of the horror of war, there is a backlash. There also is considerable criticism of journalism for not showing the horror of war more often.
Journalism’s obligation is to inform the public about significant issues in our society. That includes telling stories — with images, words and sound — that meaningfully describe both the horror and the heroism of the battlefield.
In February of 2007, I wrote about a New York Times story that told of the death of Army Staff Sgt. Hector Leija in Iraq. I pointed out that war coverage is always a balance between reporting reality — the truth as best journalists can capture it — and minimizing harm to the vulnerable, including the family members of those who fall in battle.
I commended that New York Times “Man Down” story. I feel the same about the AP photo and story on “The Death of One Marine in Afghanistan.”
The images and words of war reporting may cause pain. But we owe it Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard and to all those who fight our wars to try to comprehend what happens in battle.