Saturday, September 5, 2009

AP right to distribute photo Defense Secretary Gates urged news agency to hold

The question of how to handle photos of the dead - fallen in war or in attacks on our own soil, such as Columbine - is never easy for editors.

But the Associated Press is in a different position from a local newspaper. Its role is to provide its members and customers content that they decide what to do with. As a former editor who used to work with AP, the last thing I wanted the agency to do was hold back on content. Every day pictures streamed into our newsroom that would never see the light of day for a number of reasons, including that they were too graphic without a reason to justify showing the bloodshed. But that was our decision, not the decision of the editors at AP.

Clearly the AP photographer traveling with the troops when Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard was hit was there under certain ground rules. I don't know what they were, but I'm hoping they were that she was free to use her own judgment about what to distribute. That appears to be the case from the excellent story that went with her photos.

But the most important reason I appreciate AP editors making the decision to distribute the photo as part of a package of photos on Bernard is that it can't be left up to the family of the fallen or the defense secretary what Americans will see of a war the country is engaged in. I have the experience of Columbine to inform my thinking on such matters. I chose to publish a photo of a dead child on the sidewalk outside the school. It was an excruciating decision. The family disagreed with it at the time. But a few years later their view changed. They came to feel that people needed to see the truth and thanked me for having the courage to publish the photo. They encouraged me to have the courage to publish difficult photos in the future.

There's no doubt that the photo AP moved was a difficult photo. But the wire service did the right thing by distributing it.

There are ways to publish troubling photos. One is to prepare newspaper readers for it by not printing it on the front page. Then parents can make the decision whether they want their children to see it.

I can understand why Defense Secretary Gates might go to bat for the family and try to stop distribution of the photo. But I think it would be better for him to show what distinguishes the United States from its enemies, and one of those things is a free press. Such cases are not easy for anyone. The family's grief is profound and immeasurable. I believe the nation shares in it in some small way. Nobody wants to deepen their suffering. On the other hand, the obligation of news organizations is to inform their readers. Part of that job is to show the actual cost of war.


  1. I don't know why the photog shared the photo with the father pre-distribution. That may have made him think he had the right to object. He did not. You are correct, and thanks for a thoughtful piece.

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