“Gruesome Pictures” – To Publish Or Not To Publish

UPDATE:  White House will NOT release images of Osama Bin Laden’s body.   Good call.


There are two debates over the images of Osama Bin Laden’s body.  First the US government must decide whether to release them.  Then media outlets must decide whether to publish them.   The very well respected Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute has suggested some guidelines.     As has the Radio, Television, Digital News Association, RTDNA, urges news managers to ask themselves 20 questions before publishing the “gruesome” photos.

1) What would be the journalistic purpose behind broadcasting or publishing the Osama bin Laden photos?

2) Do the pictures clarify and help the audience understand the story better?

3) A lot of people have said that broadcasting and publishing the pictures will help bring closure to the families and friends of September 11, 2001 victims. Others have said it will help eliminate possible conspiracies that Bin Laden is still alive. Is it a news organization’s job to provide that closure and debunk potential political conspiracies?

4) Should either of those reasons be the primary reason for releasing the photos or does broadcasting and publishing them simply give the public the most information possible to make an informed decision about a historical event?

5) On the other end, does withholding the pictures contribute to any conspiracies or give the audience the perception that your news organization is?

6) What are some ways to use the photos? Do they have to be used front-and-center or are there other alternatives? Options may include cropping the photo to be smaller, using black and white instead of color, or placing the photos in a secondary location that requires the audience to read or listen to a disclaimer and click through to view the content, if it’s on the web.

7) What do you tell people within the newsroom or your audience members about your decision to use or not use the photos? Are you willing to make that rationale public and who will make the announcement?

8.) Does this story carry enough historical significance to justify using the photos? The answer here may appear obvious, but be prepared to answer, in detail, the question, “why?”

9) Are you going to use the photos in file footage later on? How often? On what platforms?

10) Will you try to confirm the authenticity of the photos beyond the government’s word that they are, in fact, real?

11) Does publishing or broadcasting the photos in any way compromise the identity of the military members who participated in the operation? If yes, would you still use the pictures?

12) How will you, if at all, present your audience with a disclaimer about the content they are about to view. And would you consider using the content only in later newscasts to avoid showing the graphic content to young children?

13) On radio, how graphic will you be in describing the photo to your audience and will you refer them directly to a web page to view the pictures? Will the photos come via a separate click?

14) What if multiple photos are released and one is less graphic than the rest. Do you use only what you deem to be the most sensitive photo? All of them?

15) Should your news organization consider the potentially violent repercussions that may occur as a result of the photos’ broadcast? Is it the individual news outlet’s responsibility to prevent extremist behavior in that regard?

16) Is your news audience of a religious faith that would take extreme offense to viewing graphic photos? How will you consider that, if so?

17) Would you consider running a separate package or story about the photos’ release and audiences’ reaction to it?

18) Similarly, how will you moderate online comments about the photo?

19) How will you incorporate social media into this? Will you publish the photos on Twitter and Facebook? How will you respond to your followers and fans in the event they disagree with your decision?

20) How will you confirm the authenticity of the photos if they are leaked early? Who in your newsroom is ultimately in charge of giving the go-ahead to use the photos?




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