December 29, 2006

Saddam Hussein’s execution by hanging in Baghdad early Saturday presents newsrooms around the world with tough decisions about how best to present the news.

 Iraqi TV released a video that shows Hussein being prepared for hanging but does not include the actual execution. Other images, official and otherwise, may surface as well. The images raise a range of questions for newsrooms, including which ones they would publish and which they would link to from their Web sites. What other options do newsrooms face as they decide how best to present this news? How will they respond to different decisions by other news organizations — and by Web sites not guided by journalistic principles? 
CNN’s Anderson Cooper told viewers Friday night that CNN officials “at the highest levels” would review the images and then decide what would be aired.

“We are not going to just get these images and slap them on TV,” Cooper said shortly after 11 p.m.

Several Poynter faculty and staff initiated a conversation about these and other questions Friday afternoon, and you’ll find those comments below. But first these updates:

UPDATE / 11:30 a.m. Sunday / Pat Walters, Naughton Fellow:

CNN posted the so-called camera phone video to its Web site — as far as I can tell, it’s the same video that Fox News linked to yesterday. CNN tells viewers that is still unclear who made the video, who released it and whether or not the Iraqi government has confirmed that it does, in fact, show Saddam being hanged. CNN prefaces the new clip with some of the film released officially by the Iraqi government yesterday — showing the noose being placed over Saddam’s head. The network added subtitles to the new clip that reveal a heated exchange of taunts and insults leading up to the hanging. CNN cuts the video before Saddam is dropped through the trap door.

Also, almost everyone reports that Saddam was buried in Awja, a small village near Tikrit, where he grew up.

On its Web site, the BBC published the camera phone video, nested in a news report, and alongside a written piece describing its contents. No subtitles with this one, but a BBC reporter narrates the video. Like the CNN clip, the BBC piece cuts before Saddam drops. The network acknowledges that it does not know the origin of the video, but notes that the scene it shows is similar to one described by a witness to the execution.

An ABC News report on the aftermath of Saddam’s execution, which appeared on its Web site, includes footage of his burial site, as well as a few short clips of the camera phone video. The video is narrated by an ABC News reporter. An Associated Press story on the network’s homepage also mentions the new video.

CBS News and MSNBC do not appear to have used the camera phone video at all, but posted AP reports that describe it.

Written descriptions of the new video abound on newspaper Web sites, but no sign of the film itself at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and USA Today.

While the Los Angeles Times does not appear to have used the camera phone video, this morning it ran a report on how the major television networks handled the graphic footage.

UPDATE / 10:10 a.m. Sunday / Bill Mitchell, Poynter Online Editor:

As news Web sites update their home pages with Sunday developments in Iraq, images of execution are beginning to give way to those of Hussein’s burial in Tikrit. Readers of The New York Times‘ site, meanwhile, have posted 1,900 comments to the paper’s main execution story.

/ 7:42 p.m. Saturday / Leann Frola, Naughton Fellow:

Fox News now has a link to a video claiming to be Saddam’s hanging in its entirety. The station warns that the video’s authenticity hasn’t been verified and that it is graphic and may be disturbing to some viewers. You have to redirect from the site to see it.

Fox also has links to three narrated videos. In addition to the Iraqi state TV footage released today, the station has a video of what appears to be Saddam lying on a stretcher, head exposed and neck “twisted at a sharp angle.” Fox also has a video of the moments before the hanging from a different angle than the footage released earlier today. Shown on Al-Jazeera and Arabiya, this new video has what Fox says might be Saddam’s final words.

ABC News’ Terry McCarthy gave his take on this video.

/ 6:55 p.m. Saturday / Leann Frola:

The New York Times now has a link to the Iraqi state TV footage that shows guards leading Saddam to the gallows and putting the noose around his neck.

So does The Washington Post, with an editor’s note to warn of graphic content and no audio.

The Times also leads with a story about Iraqis glued to the TV during repeated showings of the video:

[…] Many in this nation of 27 million spent much of the day crowding around television sets to watch mesmerizing replays of a video recording that showed the 69-year-old Mr. Hussein, in what appeared to be a state of subdued resignation, being led to the gallows shortly after 6 a.m. in Baghdad by masked executioners, and having a noose fashioned from a thick rope of yellow hemp lowered around his neck.

ABC News has included a narrated version of the footage.

UPDATE / 8 a.m. Saturday / Al Tompkins, Group Leader, Broadcast and Online Faculty:

The Web sites of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times all use a still image of the noose around Hussein’s neck but but no link to the video made available by Iraqi TV.

MSNBC has a narrated version from their live coverage.

CNN is running the video silently (preceded by a warning of graphic content).

ABC News has a still frame but does not link to the video.

CBS does not include a link to the video but does use still frames of rope around his neck and images of his dead body taken by a cell phone.

Fox News uses prominent still frames of Hussein with the noose around his neck and the cell phone shot of the body. Fox also includes narrated live-coverage video of Saddam at the gallows. The coverage is preceded by a Cingular commercial. The network included video of the body after the hanging preceded by a Nationwide insurance commercial.

The St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by Poynter, and The Tampa Tribune‘s include a link to Associated Press video (preceded by a commercial about quitting smoking).

Comments and suggestions from Poynter faculty follow below. Please join the conversation here.

UPDATE / 5:10 p.m. Friday / Al Tompkins:

This execution, if it takes place before the end of the year, would overtake just about every poll of “top news stories” for the year. It is big news, and we should not ignore the power of the photographic evidence in history.

Be sure to explain to the public why you think this is news.

If news organizations get access to the images, they should prepare their audience(s) for them. I would argue against a graphic image on the front page but would use such an image on the inside pages. A warning should be included on the jump.

Web sites could do as MSNBC did on the Hussein brothers’ photographs. They required the user to click twice before seeing the images. The first click popped up a warning which let the reader click again before being taken to the graphic image.

Television should, of course, forewarn viewers of exactly what they will see, not lean on the generic and not very useful “some viewers may find the content of this story to be disturbing.” Explain why you’re showing it.

I would not use graphic video or photographs as teases, headlines or promotions.

Consider alternatives. When the Hussein brothers’ photographs were released, thoughtful newsrooms did not use the close-ups. Instead, they used photographs of Iraqis looking at the close-ups being shown on a TV screen.

Verification is key. How do you know this is what it purports to be? How can you confirm who took the video/images? Here’s a Web site that examines images from Iraq.

Here are some additional resources you may find useful in your coverage.

UPDATE / 4:56 p.m. Friday / Kenny Irby, Visual Journalism Group Leader & Diversity Program Director:

Let me emphasize weighing the journalistic value of the photographic coverage against the harm done to individuals — discomfort caused to readers and viewers.

Thus, I recommend that media outlets and their editors/producers should have a strong understanding that coverage of the hanging will spark a negative response from many readers and viewers in their communities and audience. As a transparency step, be prepared to include disclosure statements about your decision-making with the airing and/or print publishing of the graphic photographs.

Furthermore, media outlets and editors should discuss their journalistic standards and presentation alternatives. If and when the video is released, there will be frame grabs made available for publishing in print and on the Internet, the impact of which will be dramatic and traumatic, regardless of the publishing medium.

Finally, given that this is an international and global story, it would be wise to share the historic background of this predicament and situation, offering cultural and political justification for the hanging.

UPDATE / 4:50 p.m. Friday / Kelly McBride, Ethics Group Leader:

Here are some questions to consider:

1. Where did the video or the pictures come from? Are they authentic?  Images of the execution could come from two possible sources — officials involved in the execution could release the images, or they could become public through anonymous sources. In both cases, journalists should ask about motives. Who benefits by releasing images of the execution? Should the images come from unofficial channels, editors must first determine if they are authentic. Have they been altered or edited?

2. What do the images show? Are they edited? How far ahead of the moment of death is documented? Is the death prolonged and gruesome? Is it clinical and sterile? Can those involved in the execution be identified? If they can be identified, should their identities be concealed?

3. Have the images been distributed widely on the Internet or by other means? This is not to suggest that if they have been, editors should go with the flow. But it does mean that a significant portion of the audience will see the pictures. Editors may consider linking to the images or giving their audience directions for finding the pictures. If the images do become available on the Internet, who is posting them? What is the public reaction? What information do viewers need to place the images in proper context, and how can journalists provide that information?

4. How can journalists responsibly use images of Saddam’s hanging? Can still photos be made from a video? Should images leading up to the moment of death be shown, but not the actual death? Should they be used on the Internet, but not in print or broadcast?

5. What is the journalistic purpose for showing images of Saddam Hussein’s hanging? Should the images become available, it would not be hard to justify publishing them in a responsible form. Rumors are likely to swirl about whether Saddam is really dead or how long it took for him to die. Authentic images will document the truth of a controversial act. It will hold accountable the powerful U.S. authorities and the fragile Iraqi government. Making images available to those who wish to see them will facilitate democratic responsibility in both nations.

Poynter faculty addressed the following questions Friday afternoon, before the execution.

What’s the history of journalists documenting — photographically and otherwise — the executions of public figures?

Roy Peter Clark, Vice President/Senior Scholar and Reporting Writing & Editing Faculty:

The coverage of executions is ancient, going as far back as the execution of Socrates, and the Christian gospels, where the execution of Jesus, and its aftermath, has become iconic for hundreds of millions. There have been debates over time on how graphically to depict the execution of Jesus, right up until our own time when the movie by Mel Gibson re-introduced the question.

What does the impact of those previous decisions suggest about how news organizations might proceed in this case?

Roy Peter Clark:

There may be no more important news story than when a head of state is executed. In this case, thousands of American lives and billions of dollars were spent for this outcome. I’m not sure that it can be covered too graphically. If citizens of America don’t like it, tough luck. This is the work of our government.

In the event that photos of the expected hanging of Saddam Hussein are made available to news organizations, what factors should be considered in deciding whether or how to use them?

Roy Peter Clark:

The most graphic photo is not necessarily the best news photo. I’m thinking of the young woman howling over the body of the Kent State student killed by the National Guard. The most dramatic, and emotional, image, was not the most graphic one available.

Aly Colón, Reporting, Writing & Editing Group Leader:

I think the issues regarding coverage of Saddam’s execution revolve around what role the news organizations believe they want to play in helping their audience understand the significance and impact of the event. And they need to assess how any available video/photos/audio enhances or detracts from their journalistic mission. The fact that such video/photos/audio may be available elsewhere, and accessible to everyone with Internet access, doesn’t require journalists to compete with those outlets that don’t adhere to journalistic principles.

Jill Geisler, Leadership & Management Group Leader:

Images are no longer disseminated mainly by news organizations. Should images be available, they may just as likely appear in comedy shows and cleverly edited “entertainment” videos online.

Perhaps this is just cartooning taken to a different level, but I hope we could look at this from a media and cultural literacy standpoint. What will the iconic images of this historic moment ultimately be, and how does the journalist, as sense-maker, play a role in putting this into context?

Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values/Senior Faculty, Ethics:

Newsworthiness is always a criteria, and in this case all elements of Saddam Hussein’s death would meet the threshold for a significant, newsworthy story. The challenge for journalists is not so much whether and what to report, but how to tell the stories visually and descriptively.

Editors and producers must determine where the images and stories run. That placement is a balance of the “truth-telling” principle that is the primary obligation of journalism and the principle of “minimizing harm.” In this case, I would argue that the public needs and deserves to know a great deal about the execution of Saddam Hussein. The man, his crimes and the
consequences of his actions are profoundly newsworthy. Also, the nature of this death — ordered by the court and carried out by the government — is highly significant because of the anticipated reaction and potential consequences worldwide. There is a great deal of truth to be told.

The “minimizing harm” principle addresses any negative impact the story — photos, video, detail — might have on various stakeholders and what steps might be taken to minimize harm. Granted, Saddam Hussein is a stakeholder — he’s the central character in this story. But in this case there is little, if anything, journalists can do to minimize harm. He is paying the ultimate price for his crimes. About all he deserves is an accurate story.

Hussein’s family members are stakeholders, for they will be affected to some degree by the coverage. They deserve respect, but again, the nature of the story carries such great weight that the family is down the list in terms of steps to minimize harm to them.

Journalists certainly must consider the audience for this story. Readers, viewers and listeners are stakeholders. They deserve as accurate and complete a story as possible. They also deserve respect. There’s a good chance some — probably many — in the audience for this story will be offended by some of the graphic pictures, video and details of Saddam’s execution. But in this case the profound newsworthiness of the event and the history behind it carry such great weight that journalists should not undermine their truth telling. Yet they can take some steps to minimizing harm.     

News organizations can use the tools of “placement,” “proportion” and “tone” to decide how to play photos, video and details of the execution. Where does the story run in the paper? What images of his death are used? How large is the photo? How long does the video run? What words are used with the images to describe the moment and the event?

Again, the magnitude of this story requires journalists to tell a truthful and compelling story rich in information and precise in detail. But, each editor and producer responsible for the play of the coverage can make decisions on where, how and how much is shown and told.

And, importantly, the journalists have another tool at their disposal to address the truth-harm balance.

“Transparency” is essential in this case. News organizations are wise to tell their readers, viewers, users and listeners why they are covering the story as they are and how the decisions were made. This transparency is a key form of accountability. Editors and executive producers can write a column or op-ed piece to explain the why and how of the decisions. Ideally this would run at the same time as the coverage and, ideally, in a position adjacent to or easily connected to the photos, video and stories. News organizations should also use their online space to offer their audience as complete and detailed an account as possible of their decision-making process.

The story of Saddam Hussein’s death demands extensive coverage. It also requires journalists to be forthright with their audiences and the principles that guide that coverage.

What are some of the scenarios that newsrooms might think about in advance, e.g., no official release of images, but leaked images appearing on the Web?

Roy Peter Clark:

Run it all, but with extensive commentary.

Howard Finberg, Interactive Learning Director:

I think there is a strong possibility that we’ll see these images — unofficially — on the Web, shortly after the execution. We need to remember that there other political issues/factions at work in Iraq that don’t share the same sensibilities as U.S. editors and/or news directors. 

The big challenge for Web editors is whether you link to these images. Some questions: What processes do you have in place to make the decision? Who will make the final decision? What are the pluses and minuses of linking to unofficial sites that report to have the video/images?  And, importantly, how confident are you that the image is real?

We cannot hide from the images. We cannot hide the images from readers/users/viewers. This is the negative and positive of the Web. Information is set free from limitations imposed by space, time and/or editorial judgment. 

Editors, Web and print, should also consider being very transparent with the issue of official vs. unofficial — leaked — images. Let the reader/user know what you know.

How might news organizations weigh the use of their various platforms — print, online, broadcast — in deciding appropriate display of images?

Howard Finberg:

While each media format has its own strengths and weaknesses, I think it is time to get beyond “platform thinking.” Journalism values should go across all platforms; serving the reader/viewer/user should go across all platforms. Each form brings unique storytelling and communication possibilities; each should be used for those strengths.

Since online is the youngest, I would suggest more attention be paid to making sure there is strong feedback mechanism in place to get perspective and feedback from the audience. Use the Web to help guide the user to other perspectives — put together a guided tour of coverage and other viewpoints that go outside of the local newspaper or local television station. A guided journey could be a powerful way of helping put context to this story.

What about involving readers in the decision-making process about coverage?
Pat Walters, Naughton Fellow, reports:

The Pocono Record, in Stroudsburg, Pa., now has a poll on its Web site that asks readers to vote on whether or not they want to see a picture of Hussein’s body when he is executed. Managing editor Bill Watson said the votes won’t make up his mind on coverage, but he’ll take them into account.

“It’s an involvement thing,” he said in a telephone interview. “I don’t want to just call it fun, but it’s an instant feedback.”

Bill Mitchell, Poynter Online Editor:
As valuable as such feedback can be, online polls can be tricky. Bill Watson is smart to regard them as a tool to engage reader involvement rather than any kind of reliable index of reader opinion. Unfortunately, many online polls are set up to enable only multiple choice or yes/no answers as opposed to open-ended responses. An open-ended format can be a much more effective means of giving readers their say — and collecting ideas that may prove helpful in newsroom decision-making. 
There is widespread speculation that the execution of Saddam Hussein could lead to violence in Iraq, in the United States and at other places in the world. Should journalists consider that possibility and the potential consequences?

Bob Steele:

Journalists should not ignore this possibility, but speculation is not a concrete factor in the ethical decision-making process. Again, journalists have a primary obligation to seek and report the truth as fully as possible. Sometimes, when the truth is profoundly important, it’s necessary to accept some negative consequences that result from that news coverage.

In this case, the best journalists can do is to be cautious in their coverage, so as not to make a potentially volatile situation more problematic. That means caution with the headlines, the teases and other elements of news storytelling that could ignite violence. That means being respectful, fair and accurate in reporting on the religious elements of this story.

This isn’t a time to be cute with words. This isn’t a time to settle scores. This isn’t a time to run a “great picture” or “great video” just because it’s great.

This is a time to make sound, substantive journalistic and ethical decisions that can be justified.

In addition to images, what other factors are worth consideration in deciding about headlines, teasers, stories, etc.?

Keith Woods, Dean of Faculty:

This would be a good time to remind journalists of the power of language in a moment like this. Everything, from describing the buildup to the invasion (and the fact that capturing/trying Saddam for the gassing of his people wasn’t part of the U.N. resolution that was the justification for the invasion), to describing the government structures in place to kill him — all those descriptions need to be handled with care.

Scott Libin, Leadership & Management Faculty:
Use of images and other information in promotion deserves every bit as much attention as use in actual coverage. Local television in particular often uses more discretion and responsibility in newscast content than in the “teases,” “bumpers” and other marketing of newscasts — despite the fact that the promotion is often seen by more people than the newscast itself. Standards for such marketing often differ from newsroom protocols, and decisions sometimes occur in other departments. Such organizational distinctions are lost on viewers, and communication across departmental divisions is especially essential in cases like this one.
Also, the current controversy over execution practices in this country may offer relevant context. Florida and other states are looking yet again at the way they carry out capital punishment after another botched execution just this month. What sort of access and scrutiny do various states permit, and how much accountability do they demonstrate in their role as executioners? How does that compare with the way authorities in Iraq will handle Saddam’s execution?
What spin-off stories — locally, globally — should journalists prepare for should the execution go forward in the coming hours/days?
As we discuss the journalistic issues involved in the reporting of Saddam’s execution, I would suggest the following:

What, if anything, is the significance of death by hanging in Iraqi or Muslim culture? Is there a message in the form of death that carries meaning?

If there is, how might that inform coverage?

We are updating this article as events unfold, so please check back. And join the conversation here.

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I'm a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines, including The St. Petersburg Times and The New York Times Magazine.I also produce…

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