How to handle photos of Osama bin Laden’s body if images are released

The White House was reportedly close Tuesday to releasing photos and possibly "helmet cam" videos from the military raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout. In an age when significant numbers of Americans required proof that President Obama was born in this country, newsrooms will have to decide how or even whether to use "gruesome" images that will likely be more graphic than any they normally print, air or publish online.

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told ABC's "Good Morning America," "We are looking at releasing additional information, details about the raid as well as any other types of material, possibly including photos. We want to understand exactly what the possible reaction might be to the release of this information."

(On Wednesday, the White House announced it would not release the images, however there remains the possibility they will leak, so read on.)

Options for airing, publishing the photos, video

A big part of the conversation about how to use graphic images is embedded in the question, "Why are these newsworthy?"

"I think there is a good answer for that," says Kelly McBride, Poynter Institute senior faculty for ethics, reporting and writing.

"Conspiracy therories are starting to germinate," McBride says. "And getting to people as much information as possible about how this happened is important, so people understand what our government is doing to combat terrorism, and so they can fill in the blanks to combat conspiracy theories with accurate information."

NBC News Executive Producer for Standards David McCormick says his network issued a memo Monday and re-issued it today that alerted everyone that no images or videos would be aired or posted online without going through top executives first.

"I think it is newsworthy to show the picture of somebody who has been sought-after [for] a decade, and is clearly a target by a number of countries, not only the United States. My thinking is 'Let’s look at it first and then let’s determine if they are newsworthy.' "

McCormick says while the images may be newsworthy, there are always questions of the public's tolerance for such images and of whether the photos and videos are authentic.

"The first responsibility is to report the truth and if we think this is newsworthy -- that is justification enough," McCormick said.

"On the broadcast side, I always believe you’re a visitor in someone’s home."

McCormick said newsrooms will do what they can to match the images with the government's version of what happened but, "obviously there is a leap of faith that coming from the government the pictures (are) real. We don’t have access to the kind of verification data that the U.S. government has."

Former Washington Post editor R.B. Brenner (and now Pulliam Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University) told me, "We (journalists) normally have a skittishness when we show a dead body. You have to consider the size and placement of a photograph."

Brenner said, "I tend to believe in my gut and experience [that] when it comes to showing dead bodies I opt for smaller and not color."

And he said he would most likely choose to place such an image on an inside page, not on a cover.

"It is a given that it is incredibly newsworthy. As you can see from the reaction of the American people, there is incredible emotion, almost a cathartic emotion to his death. Because the reaction is more of a primal level reaction, people want to see his body," he said.

Poynter's McBride said newsrooms should consider many alternatives beyond simply whether to run graphic images and videos.

"I would be thinking about the range of alternatives that I have, starting with: run it really big and [in] color on the front page or in a TV headline or run it small, run it inside, run it in black and white, run it only on the Internet."

Newsrooms may have many more alternatives for showing the images online. McBride says, "You could put them behind a significant barrier so people have to work really hard to see them."

Online sites can require a user to navigate to or navigate around the graphic images, according to what the user wants to see.

"I think there is a certain amount of -- we believe this because we want to believe it. We have waited for this moment for a decade," McBride explained. "So journalistically, we have to get as many details as we can as to how this happened to be sure that our understanding is accurate."

"I do think the public wants to see these photos. People are saying, 'I won't believe it until I see the photos,' " McBride added.

Bob Steele,  Director of The Janet Prindle Institute and Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute, said newsrooms should keep two words in mind when making decisions about how to use graphic images or video of bin Laden: "I would think about verification and accountability."

Steele explained:

"We are hearing specifics that he was shot in the head and that is how he died. There is an argument by some that he was assassinated as opposed to killed in a firefight. A photo adds one more piece to a large puzzle in helping us figure out what happened. Then there is the journalistic role of accountability. No matter what one believes about the right or wrong of what took place, the administration, the CIA and the military should be accountable for what happened."

Steele said, "Absent seeing the photograph we don’t have the opportunity to look at it and say, 'This does not make sense.' "

Steele used the phrase "forensic journalism" to describe the role of journalists trying to explain the raid on bin Laden's compound.

"In some cases we may need to see detailed evidence of what took place. We need to examine the specifics of a particular scene and situation to tell as accurate and meaningful and fair a story as possible -- in some places that is with a graphic photo.

"Whether the story is from a battlefield, whether it involves an assassination in some cases, words (alone) can do it. In some places a photo might cause so much harm to individuals that you may decide to use the skills of words and the craftsmanship of writing to say why you are not using the visual."

But whatever choice you make about whether or not to use the graphic images, explain to the public why you made that decision, Steele advised.

Do graphic images affect single-copy sales or newscast ratings?

Both Steele and McBride say there is no evidence that graphic front page images sell papers.

"We know a lot of instances where there is a graphic picture and more papers are sold, but it could be the nature of the story that the image is a part of," says Steele.

"Breaking news does sell papers," McBride says. "But there is no evidence that just placing a gory photo on a front page sells papers, in fact it might have the opposite effect."

Tompkins and McBride answered questions during a live chat at 4 p.m. eastern time Tuesday. You can replay the chat below.

Other resources:

  • When Saddam Hussein's sons died in a shootout with U.S. forces, newsrooms were faced with similar decisions. This is Poynter's tip sheet from that incident.
  • In 2004, readers reacted strongly when newspapers published graphic photographs of gruesome killings in Fallujah, Iraq. Poynter sent a note to editors listing a number of questions that could be useful when considering what to do in the case of bin Laden photos.
  • In 2005, the Associated Press Managing Editors National Credibility Roundtables Project showed 2,400 readers and 400 journalists five photographs and asked if the images should be published. The images included pictures of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and some natural disasters. Most of those who responded agreed the images should be made public, whether on the front page or on inside pages.
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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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