Osama bin Laden photos: To show or not to show?

By Kevin Z. Smith

With news advancing every day that the White House is considering releasing photos showing Osama bin Laden’s body, journalists will soon be pondering ethical standards and asking themselves if they want or need to use the graphic images.

[UPDATE: 5/4/2011 1:49 p.m. ET – CNN reports that President Obama has decided against releasing the photos: http://bit.ly/lSDLGg]

(What do you think? How will your newsroom decide? If you aren’t a newsroom manager, will you try to persuade the “higher ups” a certain way? Comment below.)

It’s a debate that’s sure to take place in hundreds of newsrooms around the nation. It’s also a debate that will involve more than journalists and newsrooms, as thousands of bloggers will be eager to be a part of sharing of these images.

For more than 16 years, the Society of Professional Journalists, through its four editions of ethics books, has addressed the rationale for conducting open, thoughtful and deliberate discussions whenever graphic images are under consideration. Such discussions are necessary in order to provide the public with a reasonable explanation about how and why the outlet chose to use or not use the images.

To quote Chapter 10 from SPJ’s latest ethics book – “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media” – “Photo and video images tend to generate the most heated debates within newsrooms. And it’s clear that the ire of the public can easily be provoked by a single photo or a short piece of video.”

What will undoubtedly make its way into conversations is the use of the photos online. There was a time when traditional news outlets could make such ethical decisions within a “professional vacuum,” meaning that there was little chance that the images would ever been seen by the public cooperation of the news media.

That hasn’t been the case for almost a generation of information consumers. What the community newspaper may withhold could be circulated one thousand times within that same community via blogs and social media.

In addition to the questions below, news outlets will need to decide if they want to be forced into making their ethical decisions based on decisions by non-journalists.  If the photos go viral on the Internet – and nothing suggests that this won’t be the case – will there be pressure to succumb even if it might violate existing standards in the news organization (and nearly every news outlet has some policy about graphic images)?

To those who read SPJ’s Code of Ethics and point out that it identifies an ethical journalist’s first obligation is to “seek truth and report it” (and therefore using these images meets that sacred public trust of unvarnished truth), I also refer you to the next section of the Code headlined “minimize harm.” This section suggests that truth can be told with moral consideration to those who are involved or are subjected to the harmful effects of reporting. If we didn’t believe this, we’d be compelled to run news pages and newscasts filled solely with images of dead soldiers, crime victims and those who meet tragic consequences.

Whatever the decision, it should be based on solid principles, values and rationale. To say, “We’re doing it because everyone else is,” isn’t, and hasn’t been, an excuse for circumventing ethics.

Prior to publication or broadcast, the following questions need to be asked:

  1. Do I need more information about facts or context?
  2. Can I verify that photo or images are accurate and the source/s reliable?
  3. What is the news value of the image?
  4. What is the motivation for publishing the photo or broadcasting the video image?
  5. What are the ethical and legal concerns?
  6. Who will be offended? Does the offense outweigh the value of presenting the image?
  7. What are the possible consequences of using the photo or the image? The consequences of not using it?
  8. How would I react if I saw the photo?
  9. Can alternative ways to present the information minimize the harm while still telling the story in a clear way.
  10. Will the ends justify our actions
  11. Is there a potential of establishing a new set of ethical standards by using or not using this image? Do I want that  to happen? Will I adhere to those new guidelines and make them a part of future discussions?
  12. Can I justify my decision?

For additional perspective, see posts on this topic from Ryan Murphy at RTDNA and Al Tompkins at Poynter.

Kevin Z. Smith is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and past national president (2009-10)

 

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