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Drawing the line on images of death

By Andy Alexander

If victims of the recent earthquake had been white and middle class, would The Post have run graphic depictions of their deaths? And if the purpose of such unsettling photos is to reflect reality, why not publish photos of dead U.S. soldiers in Iraq?

These were just a few of many provocative questions readers posed in reaction to Sunday’s Ombudsman column, which agreed with The Post’s decision to give prominent display -- in print and online -- to disturbing images of death form Haiti. My friend and counterpart at The New York Times, Public Editor Clark Hoyt, also used his Sunday column to address the same debate among readers.

In my column, I argued: “Journalism is about truth, and the horrific images convey reality.”

“So why will not The Post show pictures of carnage, suffering and death caused by military slaughter in Iraq and Afghanistan?” e-mailed Lawrence Fitton of Shrewsbury, Mass.

Another reader from the District wrote: “I wonder if the editors of the Washington Post would run pictures of charred smoldering bodies or of a young girl crushed to death if those bodies had been of a 12-year-old girl from Chevy Chase or a 45-year-old father of three from Cleveland Park.”

He wondered if The Post ran graphic photos of dead Haitians “because they are poor and their families are unlikely to have a voice to condemn the Washington Post for taking away their relatives’ and friends’ dignity.”

The questions underscore the difficulty of knowing where to draw the line in deciding whether, and where, to publish images of death.

As the column noted, proximity is a factor in many decisions. Newspapers typically are reluctant to run death images from their circulation area because of the likelihood that readers may be connected to the deceased. And in many cases in the United States, authorities are quick to restrict access to areas where deaths occur.

With respect to the race and socioeconomic condition of the victims, I asked The Post’s top photo editors if their decisions on running explicit photos would have been different if the earthquake had occurred in Sweden.

Photo director Michel du Cille, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, said no. “If this happened in Sweden and there were Swedish people living on the streets” and estimates of 200,000 dead, he said, “I’d say it would be the same decision.”

Clearly, the magnitude of death and suffering in Haiti distinguishes it from a tragedy inside the Beltway or even the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

But are U.S. news organizations like The Post more reluctant to run explicit photos of Americans?

A quick review of photos in The Post following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shows images of the terrible destruction and suffering, but no Haiti-like graphic images of death.

In contrast, explicit images of death ran in The Post following the 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia and other countries. Although there were no front page death photos to rival those from Haiti, there were numerous photos inside the A-section showing rows of bodies and funeral pyres.

There is ample evidence to suggest that U.S. news organizations are reticent to show explicit photos of fallen U.S. soldiers for fear of severe negative reaction from readers, including veterans and public officials.

Post reporter Philip Kennicott addressed that in a Jan. 16 Style story headlined: “Graphic visuals in Haiti coverage break from tradition.” He wrote:

Images of war, especially the wars the United States has been fighting for almost a decade now, are always politicized. Graphic presentation of death is explosive, and it is customary (in this country) to control it, for fear of inflaming passions, either for or against the conflict. In recent years, and in contrast to millenniums of history in which wounds and blood were proudly displayed by warriors (come back with your shield, or on it, the Greeks said), the soldier’s privacy has been seen as paramount. And so in the United States, images of wartime suffering are intricately referential but rarely graphic: a shattered car, but not its occupants; blood on the ground, but not the body that bled; clothing scattered among rubble, but not the people who once lived there.

“The truth is that there is a lot of visual censorship that goes on,” said Post picture editor Bonnie Jo Mount. “We’re in a culture that censors visuals very heavily. I think that sometimes works to our detriment because we don’t run visuals that people need to see.”

Iconic war photos, some of them gruesome, can influence public opinion. That was certainly the case in 1968 when photojournalist Eddie Adams captured the moment when a South Vietnamese general executed a suspected Viet Cong leader on the streets of Saigon. It ran on the front page of The Post on Feb. 2, of that year. The execution galvanized opposition to the war in the United States. The photo won the Pultizer Prize.

Two years later, the nation’s emotions were stirred by a chilling photo of a young woman kneeling over the body of a student who had just been shot dead by Ohio National Guardsmen during an antiwar rally on the campus of Kent State University. The photo, by John Filo, also won the Pultizer Prize.

Last Saturday’s “Free for All” section of The Post included a handful of letters from readers who complained about The Post running graphic death photos from Haiti. Several dozen others called or e-mailed complaints to the ombudsman, many complaining that the images were on the front page.

But after my Sunday column, a handful wrote to thank The Post for publishing the disquieting images.

“In a disaster of this magnitude, I believe that the photos helped to humanize the dead (as opposed to dehumanizing them, as such photos sometimes seem to do),” wrote Molly Holloway of Bowie. “I’ll admit to covering them when I wasn’t there so that my children would only see them if I was there to talk about the situation. But I think that, in this particular instance, we NEEDED to see the evidence.”

“If these photos were ‘disturbing,’ one can only imagine how “disturbed’ one would be to actually be part of that earthquake,” wrote Peggy Speelman of Fairfax Station. “If parents can’t explain to their kids that awful things do happen, then they are not teaching their kids about life.”

By Andy Alexander  | January 25, 2010; 12:11 PM ET
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Just want to thank you for your wonderful job as Ombudsman. Being a "Ombudsman"--which is defined as an "unwavering apologist for newspaper management policies and practices against the interests of the readers" is a difficult job, and often thankless. From Salongate, to the Fiscal Times puppet-show, you've defended the Post against any whiff of scandal.


Posted by: antontuffnell | January 25, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Stop pretending that race and socio-economics don't matter. When was the last time we saw dead masses of dead white people? Proximity - UVA is how far from DC? 9/11 - NY and the Pentagon are how far? OK City; mass killings at schools; war; etc.

We're not stupid and we don't buy the proximity story.

Posted by: rlj1 | January 25, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

This piece is very informative and, while the connection between race, SES, and the freedom with which images are being displayed wasn't at the forefront of my mind, I can certain respect this point of view. In general, I think many media outlets are relying more and more on the shock value of graphic photos. Suffering is already described in vivid detail; why are photos even necessary?

Posted by: specialsauce68 | January 27, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Are you people RETARDED? You're upset because the dead people in the pictures are BLACK? If these people were WHITE, we wouldn't be showing these photos? Really? Cause I seem to recall, that the DEAD PEOPLE in the BALKANS, were WHITE. Serbians. Albanians. Macedonians.
Don't worry. This Haiti thing won't last forever. It'll soon be over, and you can get back to waiting breathlessly, for the Pictures of DEAD AMERICAN MILITARY PERSONEL, that some of your media buddies SUED IN COURT to get a look at.

Posted by: GoomyGommy | January 27, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

What a strange country this is! We watch television and movies where people are blown to bits, blood squirting every where, but real death makes us squeamish.
In other parts of the world, pictures of the dead are nightly news. Here in the US , fake death is good, but, to quote from "A Few Good Men": "YOU CAN"T HANDLE THE TRUTH".

Posted by: DrJMD | January 27, 2010 11:11 PM | Report abuse

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