Photo Controversies: Debates Worth Having

September 10, 2009 

If you're like me and detached yourself from just about everything this past Labor Day weekend, you might have missed the controversial publication of a photo of Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard, 21, of New Portland, Maine, right after being mortally wounded by a rocket propelled grenade in Afghanistan. The photo shows Cpl. Bernard bloody and wounded, with his legs apparently missing, as fellow Marines try to help him. The Associated Press released the photo over the objections of Bernard's family, and even Defense Secretary Robert Gates was moved to try to prevent distribution of the photo.

The fantastic New York Times photo blog, Lens, published a report last Friday about the controversy, but if you prefer the Queen's spelling of "defence," you can also read about it at the Daily Mail.

The photo of Cpl. Bernard didn't run in the Herald, and if a local serviceman or woman's ultimate sacrifice was documented and available on the wire, it's unlikely we would run the photo. Instances like this are obviously case by case, but it's likely the photo of a dying man would not have run at all, says Executive Editor Ken Robertson.

Longtime readers might remember the fatal shooting of Washington State Patrol Trooper James Saunders during a traffic stop in October 1999. The Herald ran this photo from the scene:

His body is covered as authorities investigate the scene and the darkness is punctuated with bright vehicle lights, making many of the scene's details vague, except for the trooper's boots, which Photo Editor Bob Brawdy, who took the photo, thinks was what haunted readers most. This photo's front-page placement touched off a firestorm of controversy, with angry phone calls and letters from readers and meetings between law enforcement and the editors.

The death of a police officer strikes a nerve in most communities, and Bob says he thinks the Tri-Cities lost some innocence with Trooper Saunders' death. Perhaps it’s the average soldier's youth, or maybe because he or she is serving so far from home, but a soldier's death seems to have even more gravity associated with it.

Back in 2004, well before the Department of Defense lifted its ban on photos of flag-draped coffins, Tami Silicio lost her job with an Army contractor after she captured and distributed images of U.S. soldiers returning home in caskets. The mere existence of the 1991 ban shows how emotionally charged the issue is, even when images are devoid of gore, in a spotless, ceremonial setting that shows only a flag-draped coffin.

Controversies like these have swirled and touched down throughout the history of mass media in this country and there's no sign of any significant resolution or consensus on the topic. But they're debates worth having, and in a time when the latest news of American soldiers killed in action is briefed and buried deep beneath the front page, controversies like these bring their toil and sacrifice back into the national dialogue.

But what do you think?

Update: Sept. 23 - NY Times Lens Blog, "From the Archive: Not New, Never Easy"

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