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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

KATRINA: Should the Media Publish Photos of the Dead?

I just had an interesting conversation with Reuters' Deborah Zabarenko concerning the ethics of publishing news photographs of casualties of Hurricane Katrina. FEMA officials are refusing to allow journalists to accompany recovery operations as they search for the dead in New Orleans and elsewhere. A FEMA statement Zabarenko read to me noted that officials believe such photos should not be published as a matter of respect, so journalists are not being allowed on the operations.

At least a couple of professional journalism organizations and some bloggers are crying censorship in response to the FEMA directive and Zabarenko wondered if I agreed with that assessment. My response was essentially two-fold:

First, having been an editor who had to make decisions about the propriety of using news photographs of victims of war, automobile accidents, the carnage caused by a suicide bomber and much else, my first rule is always that nobody, including newspaper editors by the way, wants to open their morning paper to find a revolting photo of a deceased aunt, uncle, brother or other family member or friend. It's the same reason no one wants a mother or father to learn from a newspaper photo that a son or daughter has been killed in combat.

But the reality is there are often dead bodies connected with the biggest news stories and sometimes their presence is an essential part of conveying the truth about a situation. The question is whether such photos are presented in an appropriate manner.

For example, FOX News' Shepard Smith did a segment over the weekend that included a distant shot of a covered body on a bridge in New Orleans. The identity of the individual couldn't be seen, nor could any details of the injuries sustained by the individual. That's the way it should be done ... if it must be done.

And with the prospect of multiple thousands of fatalities resulting from Katrina, no one should be surprised that journalists seek to portray that aspect of the sad situation. But they must do it carefully and respectfully; otherwise they deserve the opprobrium they will certainly receive.

Second, is FEMA's action in refusing to allow journalists with cameras to accompany the recover operations an example of censorship? My answer to Zabarenko was that it may well be imprudent, but it doesn't rise to the level of censorship. There are ways of "getting the shot" that are true to the news process without being on a FEMA recovery operation and resourceful journalists are already finding them.

Now, if the government were to send its agents to newsrooms demanding to seize all such photos prior to publication or broadcast, everybody would recognize it as censorship. But that is not what FEMA is doing in the present case. FEMA is preoccupied with other issues of greater immediacy.

Recovery of the victims of a natural disaster or the victims of a man-made disaster like 9/11 or the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City is an emotionally wrenching experience, even for the most jaded of professionals, particularly when small children and infants are involved. If I were tasked with such difficult duties, the last thing I would want to be thinking about is what the journalists behind me are doing with their cameras.

I know a lot of people who read this are going to disagree with me, and some will probably think either that I am selling out decency in order to sell newspapers or selling out journalism in order to curry favor with officials. Neither view is right, but that's fine, everybody is entitled to their opinion.

For those interested in further exploring this issue, check out this thorough treatment by the Poynter Institute's Aly Colon. The context is mainly Iraq but the questions raised and the process recommended is applicable to all situations involving photography of the dead.

Now it will be interesting to see how Zabarenko reports our conversation, if at all.

UPDATE:

Go here and read the story Zabarenko wrote late yesterday and compare the brief quote from me she used to end the piece with my comments above, which follow exactly what I said to her during our interview. By the way, she recorded the interview, with my permission, so there should be no question about the consistency of the above comments with what I said during the interview.

But using only the common decency quote without noting what I also said about the necessity of carefully using photos of corpses to convey the full parameters of a news situation leaves the reader with a one-dimensional impression of my comments. Or perhaps Zabarenko did use those quotes but they were edited out of the version of the story I read.

Wouldn't it be better for all concerned if all reporters recorded all interviews and included links to audio versions of those interviews in their stories? Giving readers audio links to the full interview would increase the value of a reporter's work by giving readers access to much more information and would give everybody involved an effective analytic tool for assessing how well the reporter conveyed the substance of the interviewee's comments.

Hugh Hewitt has lately been sometimes declining to be interviewed unless the reporter agrees to do it live on radio. I don't have a radio show but I do have this blog. So, would some of you techies out there tell me how I can record interviews that take place on the telephone and then post them here?

Just think, if news sources routinely record and post their interviews what effect that might have on the quality of reporting?

UPDATE:

Just received an email from Michael Hatton, who disagrees with me:

"I want to say I disagree with you 100%. They should show all the photos of the bodies from Katrina and nobody should tell the news what to show but the people and their editor. If people don't like what they see let them vote by not buying the paper. In other words let people judge for themselves. The editors should understand what the readers want and don't want and will adjust accordingly. FEMA should not interfere with NEWS.
"I think the American people should see the full effect of Katrina and the after effects, this will help people to understand what's going on. Let the spotlight of truth shine through. I don't need FEMA, you or the government telling me what I cannot see concerning a national disgrace.
If the paper wants they can blot out the face. "


There you go, Michael.