Handling Abu Ghraib Images

ABC News has published online a handful of newly-released photos from Abu Ghraib. The photographs, which were reportedly taken at the prison in 2003, are accompanied by a warning: "The following graphic depictions include nudity. Viewer discretion is advised."

Here are some questions Poynter's Reporting, Writing & Editing Group Leader Aly Colón thinks news organizations could consider when deciding whether to use the photographs and video:

  1. How similar or different are they from pictures and/or video already published?
  2. Where did the pictures/video come from?
  3. Why were they released now?
  4. What, if any, new light do they shed on the Abu Ghraib story?
  5. How will the pictures/video advance the Abu Ghraib story?
  6. How will the pictures/video help the reader/viewer better understand the Abu Ghraib story?
  7. Are the release of these pictures/videos related to the Muhammad cartoons?
  8. What context can the news organizations provide if they decide to use these pictures/videos?
  9. What journalistic principles, and journalistic purpose, will the news organizations rely on to justify whatever decision they make?
  10. What consequences do they forsee if they do, or don't, publish?

Here is some guidance on Visual Reporting Ethics developed by Visual Journalism Group Leader and Diversity Director Kenny Irby. (You can also download this as a PDF.)


  • What is my journalistic purpose?
  • What organizational policies and professional guidelines should I consider?
  • What are my ethical concerns?
  • Who are the stakeholders -- those affected by my decisions? Think inclusively.


  • Is the content authentic?
  • Are our research, reporting and rendering steps fair and honest?
  • Is the work an example of credible creativity?


  • What do I know? What do I need to know?
  • Is the photographic content what the photographer saw in the viewfinder?
  • Can I clearly and fully justify my thinking and my decision?
  • How can I include the voices of other people with difference perspectives and diverse ideas?


  • What are my alternatives?
  • Is the content being changed in ways beyond basic image quality corrections?
  • Is it necessary to place the image in context with additional text explanation?


  • Blend of accuracy and aesthetics
  • News value of story
  • Impact on audience
  • Timeliness

Undertake thorough reporting about the image.
Discuss the circumstances associated with the image with the visual reporter.
Maximize journalistic responsibility while minimizing unnecessary harm.
When you ask good questions in advance, you make better ethical decisions.

Additional related resources:

Dealing with Shocking Images
By David Shedden
A bibliography of compiled for the NewsU Webinar: Handling the Horrible: Dealing with Shocking Images.

APME Survey: Readers Balance Compassion With Privacy When Considering Disturbing Images
By Ryan Pitts
Readers and journalists discuss the value of graphic images in newspapers. > Read more

War Images as Eyewitness
By Kenneth Irby
It is true that a picture can be worth 1,000 words. And it's also true that some pictures are worth 1,000 pictures. Especially in times of war, certain pictures have a unique way of changing the course of history. > Read more

Readers Respond to Fallujah Photos
By Phil Shook
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. > Read more

Beyond Taste
By Kenneth Irby
When terror strikes, chaos reigns, people are maimed and killed. And eerie images linger in the minds and memories, making picture editing a challenging task.  > Read more

  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed Poynter.org for 10 years.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon