Sunday, May 22, 2005

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES has a lengthy analytical piece today airing a journalistic debate about why the print media generally has not shown graphic photographs of U.S. casualties and discussing the question of whether such pictures should be shown more often, or at all. Newspapers have been more willing to print photos of Iraqi casualties, according to the article, although, quite frankly, I don't see them that often.

A review of six prominent U.S. newspapers and the nation's two most popular newsmagazines during a recent six-month period found almost no pictures from the war zone of Americans killed in action. During that time, 559 Americans and Western allies died. The same publications ran 44 photos from Iraq to represent the thousands of Westerners wounded during that same time.

Many photographers and editors believe they are delivering Americans an incomplete portrait of the violence that has killed 1,797 U.S. service members and their Western allies and wounded 12,516 Americans.

Journalists attribute the relatively bloodless portrayal of the war to a variety of causes — some in their control, others in the hands of the U.S. military, and the most important related to the far-flung nature of the conflict and the way American news outlets perceive their role.

"We in the news business are not doing a very good job of showing our readers what has really happened over there," said Pim Van Hemmen, assistant managing editor for photography at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

"Writing in a headline that 1,500 Americans have died doesn't give you nearly the impact of showing one serviceman who is dead," Van Hemmen said. "It's the power of visuals."

One of the reasons newspaper editors give for not showing such pictures more often is the fear of offending or upsetting the families of soldiers killed, and of attracting unwelcome negative publicity.

Americans who have spouses, children, or siblings in Iraq or Afghanistan tend to have mixed feelings about seeing their loved ones displayed on a newspaper's front page after they have died in such a horrible way.

Deirdre Sargent, whose husband was deployed to Iraq, e-mailed editors of the News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., that the photo left her "shaking and in tears for hours." She added: "It was tacky, unprofessional and completely unnecessary."

Babbitt's mother, Kathy Hernandez, expressed ambivalent sentiments. "That is not an image you want to see like that," said Hernandez, still shedding tears of fury and sadness six months after her son's death. "Your kid is lying like that and there is no way you can get there to help them."

Hernandez — who lives in Uvalde, Texas, about 80 miles west of San Antonio — wishes the newspapers at least had waited until after her son's funeral to run the photo. But she has no doubt why they wanted to print it.

"I do think it's an important thing, for people to see what goes on over there," Hernandez said in a phone interview. "It throws reality more in your face. And sometimes we can't help reality."

But if it is so unbearably painful to see pictures of people we love -- or even just people who are from our home town, or our state, or our country -- after they have been killed by a bomb, or a gunshot, or a grenade, then how can we as a society justify putting our loved ones or other people's loved ones into war? If we're asking them to be there, is it right to say we don't want to see what happens to them?

In virtually every conflict since the beginning of the 20th century, the debate has been renewed: Do Americans need to see the most vivid pictures of the consequences of war?

One camp has argued against publishing graphic images of U.S. casualties, saying the pictures hurt morale, aid the enemy and intrude on the most intimate moments of human suffering.

Journalists, in contrast, generally have invoked their responsibility as witnesses — believing they must provide an unsanitized portrait of combat.

"There can be horrible images, but war is horrible and we need to understand that," said Chris Hondros, a veteran war photographer whose pictures are distributed by the Getty Images agency. "I think if we are going to start a war, we ought to be willing to show the consequences of that war."

Maybe the only way we can keep on having wars is by shielding ourselves from having to see or know what they truly look and feel like.

Magpie at Pacific Views and Kevin Drum also have posts about this article.

No comments: