Eighteen such photos were provided by an anonymous soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division, David Zucchino reports, though only two images were published. Both appear with the story online, and the same two appear in print, Zucchino told me, one of them on today’s front page (see below). The soldier who provided the images served in Afghanistan and “said the photos point to a breakdown in leadership and discipline that he believed compromised the safety of the troops.”
Pentagon officials say the images are over two years old; the paper reports they are from a yearlong deployment of the 4th Brigade Combat Team from Ft. Bragg, N.C., “which lost 35 men during that time, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks casualties. At least 23 were killed by homemade bombs or suicide bombers.”
U.S. military officials asked the Times not to publish the photos, but they did.
Times Editor Davan Maharaj said, “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”
“It is a violation of Army standards to pose with corpses for photographs outside of officially sanctioned purposes,” Army spokesman George Wright told the paper.
Zucchino explained by email how he got the photos. “The photos were sent to me, unsolicited, by a soldier who had served in the unit. He had seen some of my news stories from Afghanistan. I had never met him.” Zucchino has been covering Afghanistan since January 2002 and has made 14 reporting trips there, he said.
Zucchino also described how he vetted the images. “I verified the authenticity of the photos through interviews with the soldier who provided the photos, with Pentagon officials and with commanders from the unit,” he said.
(Update: In a live chat on LATimes.com, Editor Davan Maharaj said the newspaper delayed publishing the photos, at the Pentagon’s request, so that the soldiers depicted could be protected.)
Newspapers often avoid publishing graphic images on their front pages, where readers could be surprised by them over breakfast. But they regularly wrestle with whether and how to handle disturbing newsworthy photos. Last year, photos of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi surfaced. There was also debate over how to handle graphic images of Osama bin Laden, which President Obama decided not to release.
“Photographs integral to the story”
Kenny Irby, Poynter’s senior faculty for visual journalism, said these new images are newsworthy because they show the “unseemly side of being a soldier.”
“It’s almost Abu Ghraib all over again,” he said, referring to the images of prisoner abuse at the Iraqi prison that surfaced in 2004. In both cases, “the photographs are an integral part of the story. You don’t really advance the story without the photographic truth.”
Most of the prisoners depicted in the Abu Ghraib photos were not dead. But a few months ago, a video surfaced depicting U.S. soldiers urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters.
Al Tompkins, Poynter’s senior faculty for broadcast and online, noted that the Times explained its decisionmaking in its story. “The Times took its time to verify the images, notify the government and listen to the military’s concerns.”
“I’m sure their process was a very thorough one,” Irby said.
Today, news organizations around the country will have to consider these questions themselves. (Poynter’s guidance on how to handle the Abu Ghraib images is relevant.)
Among the issues he’d consider before publishing the photos, Tompkins said via email, are how old they are (they were taken more than two years ago), whether there’s reason to believe this sort of thing happens today, and the motivation of the source.
“The source told the Times the reason for releasing the pictures was to expose ‘a breakdown in leadership and discipline that he believed compromised the safety of the troops,’ ” Tompkins said. “It is a worthy question, given how many of these breakdowns we have seen, from Abu Ghraib to Koran burning and soldiers urinating on corpses.”
As for how this could affect the safety of soldiers abroad, he said, “Certainly there are reasons to worry that these kind of images will heighten tensions and make the war even more dangerous. But not exposing the problems also carries dangers. How would a journalist explain why he/she ignored the images?”
News outlets that serve communities with large military populations will have especially difficult decisions. ”I suspect it would be even more compelling if you were near a military base. That population has a bigger stake in the story,” Tompkins said.
And then there is the question of how to publish the images — in print, online or both? Many news outlets opted to run the photos of Abu Ghraib online but not in print, Irby said, a vestige of the argument that children shouldn’t be exposed such images.
“This doesn’t hold out today because many more children are on the Internet than are reading newspapers,” Irby said.
Today’s L.A. Times front page: