The question of whether the White House would release video and photos of slain Osama bin Laden on Tuesday became a matter of what and when, not whether or not. And with that change came our own questions: What do we do with them?
Despite the prevalence of graphic images in video games, movies and increasingly on TV, there remains a taboo on graphic images in published newspapers like The Mercury.
Photographers and editors carefully scan images from local car crashes to be certain there is nothing visible of a dead victim. We even crop out or refrain from publishing a victim’s purse or headband or sweatshirt which may have been thrown to the side of a roadway in a fatal crash.
Admittedly, we have made mistakes and published photos that included the sight of a grieving mother or a victim’s shoe or a glimpse of an arm in the background that we didn’t realize belonged to the victim. These are not intentional, not meant “to sell papers,” but are details we missed despite our efforts.
In national or international news stories, the criteria changes a bit. A disaster the magnitude of the Haiti earthquakes a year ago or the long-ago Jonestown massacre involved publication of photos that included bodies or hard-to-watch video on our website of bloodied scenes of devastation.
Despite what many think, we don’t do this for profit but out of a sense of responsibility to show just what people are enduring and how desperately help is needed.
The question Tuesday on what to do with photos of an evil terrorist killed with a shot to the head by U.S. Navy Seals was an entirely different debate.
The release of the photos was considered by many as necessary to prove that bin Laden was dead, and that U.S. military officials were not “making it up.” We asked our readers Monday on Facebook if they thought the White House should release photos, and most said yes.
“Yes, because I think the world needs to know he’s gone for sure!” wrote Jessica Lynn Ebersole.
“I would not want to see them, but it also wouldn’t leave people wondering either,” wrote Amber McClune.
“We should be able to see his body to bring complete closure especially to those families that had loved ones killed during 9/11,” wrote Kimberly Ann Barry Ibach.
On Tuesday, we followed by asking readers if they thought we should publish the photos.
Here’s what you said:
“Maybe on line, but not in the paper because of children seeing it,” said Jim Folk.
Ashley Brooke answered, “Absolutely not. Dead is dead, seeing a graphic image should not make anyone feel better, and children could see!”
“Yes, but please make sure you warn us first. I don’t want to see it on accident,” said Becky Simmers.
“Absolutely publish them the American people deserve to be able to see the proof. If you dont wanna look then don’t! I personally do!” wrote Amber May.
Dave Brewer said, “No ... if someone wants to see them, there will be plenty of places to find them on the internet. No reason my kids (11,9, 7 and 5) should see them plastered on the front page of the paper they see every day.”
“I think they should be released online or in a sealed insert in the paper, that way people can choose if they want to see it or not and make sure their children are not in the room,” wrote Sheryl Wynn.
White House officials revealed that the photos they would release would show that bin Laden was shot above his left eye, blowing away part of his skull. He was also shot in the chest, they said.
Other photos were described as showing the adult son of bin Laden slain as well as a courier and his brother. The photo of the burial at sea, while not as graphic, was also controversial and could inflame Islamic sentiment.
As we discussed how to handle publication including the comments of readers on Facebook, we came back to the sentiment that this is a “family newspaper,” as our readers like to remind us, and we understand that we are “welcomed” into our readers’ homes.
You can’t change the channel or unplug the game once you open the pages of the paper.
But we are also a news organization and the stakes for providing witness to the death of this long-sought criminal are too high to ignore.
Our debate on how to handle the photos was based on trust in our readers that discretion will be used with children and with others who may find the images disturbing. We plan to not publish the more graphic photos in print but include that content on our website. We will be making them available to those who choose to click on them and not displaying them openly to those who don’t.
The news importance of bin Laden’s death is too significant in world history to forego printing images of his burial at sea. Just as we report on the funeral of those whose lives influenced the course of history by their good acts, his burial is a news event, and we are not doing our jobs if we shy away from it.
The angst behind all this comes down to one point made succinctly on our Facebook page by Adam Andrews:
After all, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”