America’s editors say they faced tough calls on how to handle photographs of gruesome killings in Fallujah, Iraq. Thousands of American readers, asked for their views by hometown news organizations, helped illustrate that difficulty.
Many readers supported displaying the photographs prominently; some said the images brought home the true nature of war and others said they showed the savagery of America’s adversaries.
Others were outraged at publishing the photos at all. To do so was sensational and hurtful to those who knew the Americans killed and mutilated.
Readers’ outspoken but divided response to the images emerged when 29 news organizations across the country e-mailed 13,642 readers beginning Friday, April 2. They asked about a particular photo, which showed Iraqis cheering as the burned, mutilated bodies of two Americans hung from a bridge.
By the following Thursday, 2,009 readers had responded. Of these, 58 percent approved of the image being published in a newspaper or on a website; 39 percent objected to using the picture.
“I would run the photo,” said Ray Lottie of Hawley, Minn. “The important thing is to give readers a sense of the brutality of the enemy we face in Iraq.”
“Hiding ourselves from the truth, as awful as it may be, is not in our best interest as a country,” said Jeanine Carson of Brunswick, Ga.
“As much as I dislike seeing things of this nature, I think it very important to demonstrate what we are really up against,” said Tracy Frazier of Ballston Spa, N.Y.
A number of readers voiced opinions just as strongly against the decision to display the photos on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.
“I would not run a gruesome, horrific photo that illustrates man’s inhumanity to man in such graphic detail,” said Nancy Lookabaugh of Queens, N.Y.
“It’s inhumane to display these kind of graphics,” said Nelson Balgos of Ponte Vedra, Fla.
“I would not run the photo. It is enough to know that terrible things are happening all over the world,” said Trisa Chancy of Kingsland, Ga.
“It seems to be more sensationalism than news,” wrote Douglas Underhill, of Jacksonville, Fla.
Some choices of images to run:
In several cases readers said they could not participate in the survey because they did not want to see the photographs under any conditions. “I want to express my outrage at being subjected to graphic images at every opportunity,” said Joey Shankman of Newman Lake, Wash. “I will add my voice to those crying for some moderation in the images we are bombarded with today. What chance do my grandchildren have to edit such images from their lives; they cannot turn away.”
The questions used were modeled after a survey designed by The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists and think tank for journalism ethics and standards. Poynter queried editors about their decisions on the Fallujah photos.
In addition to asking whether a photo depicting the incident should have been run, readers also were asked to comment on any considerations under which they would alter their opinion on the use of graphic wartime photographs. These questions included: What if the bodies were those of American soldiers rather than civilian workers? If the charred bodies could be recognized as human forms, not just parts of corpses? If the bodies were not charred, but were visible as distinctive human beings?
Some readers said their primary concern would be exposing a disturbing and graphic photograph of an identifiable war victim to their relatives or loved ones.
Betty Ogden, Indiana: “If this were my loved one, I would be in anguish to see such photos used so casually and callously.”“If this were my loved one, I would be in anguish to see such photos used so casually and callously,” said Betty Ogden, Jeffersonville, Ind.
“I think it is the truth that needs to be told but not at the expense of the families seeing their loved ones hanging like Mussolini,” said Emory Weldon from Macclenny, Fla.
“For the sake of the families of the individuals, I would consider modifying the pictures to assure that the particular individual was not identifiable in the photo, much the way it is done now to hide the identity of minors or others in other situations,” said Chuck McManus, of Jekyll Island, Ga.
Elizabeth Ann Williams of Bakersfield, Calif. inquired: “In the midst of grief, is it necessary to be further stressed by seeing gruesome photographs that might be of that loved one in a newspaper?”
Some readers suggested modifying the picture in some way or running it on the inside pages of the newspaper.
A number of readers expressed concern about exposing such graphic photos to children.
“Pictures are also viewed by children who cannot read the stories, and graphic images are not something they need to see,” said Beth Cummings of Moorhead, Minn.
“I’d especially like to see children’s innocence preserved as long as possible, and there are already too many things tearing away at that,” Chancy said.
Some readers thought running the photo would rally support for the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq, while others saw it as making the case for not being there.
“A lot of Americans do not understand why the military is in Iraq, and I think this helps explain the necessity of a presence in Iraq,” wrote Candice Tolman of Honolulu, Hawaii.
“The pictures should appear on the front page of every newspaper in the United States,” said Charles Cavenaugh of Bend, Ore. “A large number of people are supporting George’s Bush’s war; let them see the results!”
“We need to see the reality of war to make an informed choice about why we are at war and whether we should continue,” said Michelle Brady.
Editors at news organizations participating in the online survey said their decision on how to handle the photographs did not come without much reflection and spirited debate with experienced editors on their staffs.
Chris Peck, editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, said Memphis community standards were considered in making the decision, as well as ethics guidelines established by The Poynter Institute.
Peck said he decided to run one of the photographs on the front page along with a warning about the graphic nature of a second photo that ran inside. “I felt the truth of the photos needed to be shown to our readers,” Peck said. “At the same time, I believe strongly that newspapers need to both explain their decisions and give readers some options about content.”
At the Rockford (Illinois) Register Star, executive editor Linda Grist Cunningham said the paper decided not to run the most controversial of the photos. She explained the newspaper’s decision in a Sunday column and directed readers to the newspaper’s website, where the photos had been posted.
The effort to ask readers about newspaper coverage of world events is part of the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) National Credibility Roundtables Project.
One of the project’s goals is to encourage editors to include voices of the public in conversations about news coverage and journalistic issues.
The newspapers and online sites taking part have built reader e-mail feedback systems. They find readers willing to get occasional e-mails asking their input. Editors send queries when they want to quickly hear more voices on a journalistic question or to gather a wider variety of sources for news coverage. The e-mail queries are not a scientific poll.
Ken Sands, managing editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., and chief architect of the reader e-mail project, said people felt strongly about the Fallujah photos, and a higher than average response to the questions reflects that.
Sands said it is important for media to consult with readers on issues like this, and not just as an afterthought. “I’d like to get to the point where we can consult with readers on deadline on breaking stories to get a sense of whether we’re thinking clearly and whether we’re in tune with the sensibilities of our readers. In fact, the results of this survey surprised me. I thought that a lot more people would oppose us running that photo. Knowing that ahead of time, while we were still having an internal discussion, would have been helpful.”
Carol Nunnelley, director of APME’s National Credibility Roundtables, said: “The response underscores that if editors think it was a tough decision, they had a lot of company and probably some understanding. This may not be what you would hear if you simply wait for angry phone calls after you make a decision. That’s why it is important not to just listen to people who seek you out but also to seek out a fuller spectrum of the public.”
Phil Shook is a freelance writer based in New York who works with the APME National Credibility Roundtables Project.