Tough Calls on Hussein Corpse Photos

     News organizations are making tough calls today on how to treat the graphic photographs of Qusay and Uday Hussein.  The decision about whether, how and where to air/publish the images should be the result of thoughtful newsroom discussions not quick gut-reactions to disturbing photographs.

           Among the questions newsrooms should consider:

     -What is the real journalistic value of the photographs? What do they prove and why are they news? Do they dispel or affirm information the public had prior to seeing the images?

     -What is the tone and degree of the usage?  Television should, for example, avoid the repeated and extended use of these images and be thoughtful about how they are used in headlines, over the shoulder graphics and teases, especially in afternoon or primetime television programming.

     -Forewarn the audience if you use these images.  Give the public some ability to choose what and how much they see.  It might mean using small black and white images on the front page of a newspaper but including more graphic larger images inside.

     For television it might mean forewarning viewers that the following story will contain graphic images.  Websites can follow's example of placing a warning slate on the page and allow the viewer to select "play" for the images to appear on the page. The MSNBC page does not automatically load the images.

 -How will you explain your decisions the public?

     Bob Steele, Poynter's Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values, says, "A decision of this nature demands that newsroom leaders pay attention to their guiding principles and apply a sound, thoughtful process.  Bring a number of voices into the conversation including contrarians. Surface at least three alternatives and ideally many more for what you will ultimately decide. And very importantly, be transparent with your reader or viewers about why and how you made your decision. Reveal the values that drive your decision and reveal the nature of the process so that the public understands how seriously you took this matter and better understands the significance of the issue."

     Steele added: "In this case you have tension between the importance of the photographs as a public policy matter, how the US government is handling the deaths and the related photos of Hussein's sons.  You have the matter of journalistic independence of news organizations making important independent decisions and not being unduly influenced by the desires of government leaders or even the gut reactions of critics who would say don't show such graphic images?  You also have the value of truth seeking.  These photos can provide documentation and verification that the public can use as part of their understanding of this key chapter of the war in Iraq."    

      Former executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and President of the Poynter Institute Jim Naughton offered some advice, "My strong bias would be in favor of using the pictures.  I think if they are used, it will be important for sensitive souls who were exposed to have some preparation. If I were editing a newspaper I would allude to them in a very obvious way on the front page and probably put the pictures inside so that you had a chance to understand they were there before you encountered them.  If I were producing a broadcast I would not lead the newscast with them but I would place very high up (in our coverage) the knowledge that the photos were coming and give you a couple of shots at averting your eyes."

 It will be important for any news organization to be able to explain to viewers how they make their decisions to use, or not use these images.

     Naughton said, "The pictures are news.  They are demonstrably important because they enable people to confirm for themselves the fact of whether these two individuals cease to be a problem for Iraq and for American military people serving in Iraq. We live in a society that values evidence--not so much demands it, but values it.  Over the history of this country and others we have been mislead and we therefore value reliable information that enables us to make a citizen's judgment. The pictures give you the opportunity to affirm information about the demise of two people who were important in the history of our encounter with Iraq."

How Does This Fit With Your Established Policies?
     The decisions you make on this case may have long-term implications for how you make future decisions about how and when to show dead bodies.

      Veteran newspaper editor and television news director Gregory Favre, now Poynter Distinguished Fellow in Journalism Values said, "First you should examine your own policy for using photographs of dead bodies and determine whether you believe there is redeeming value in running these images that would cause you to break your policy. From what I can see in this case, the images in no way resemble the pictures of the two sons that we have seen before and you would only break your policy for shock value." 

     Favre says the negative and positive public reaction is much greater to the frozen image than the moving image.  For that reason, Favre agrees that television and newspaper executives may ethically make different decisions about the use of the photos. "In television, the image is gone in a few seconds, it is not sitting on your table for the children to see, there is something permanent about a picture you can hold as opposed to something you can't hold." 

     Jill Geisler, a news director for more than 20 years and now Group Leader for Leadership at Poytner said," I think these pictures are important and historic, principally for the people of Iraq and should be used with extreme respect for the dead..any dead. Even a picture of Hitler's corpse should not become wallpaper. (A term that television journalists use referring to generic images.) Wars are partly about information and disinformation. At a time when people have many questions about the veracity of statements from their leaders anywhere, pictures that help tell an accurate story are worth sharing with caution."  

     Naughton said he was heartened by the fact that even the Department of Defense debated whether to release the photos. Naughton added, "Our bias as journalists is in favor of giving information and it should only be for good reason that we withhold it or temper it and there are sometimes good reasons."  

In an afternoon briefing at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "I honestly believe that these two are particularly bad characters and it is important for the Iraqi people to see them to know they are gone, know they are dead and to know they are not going to come back. And I think that will save American lives, save Coalition lives and be a great benefit to the Iraqi people to be free of that. And I feel it was the right decision (to release the pictures) and I am glad I made it."

MSNBC says that journalists will be allowed to photograph the bodies Friday.

  • Profile picture for user atompkins

    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.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon