Sunday, April 19, 2009

Coverage of War

I have been writing my term paper on the ethical nature of newspapers now being able to print and take pictures of flag-draped coffins returning from wars to Dover Air Force Base. The research and thought that has been devoted to this subject is extensive. But I find that some of the major undertones of this issue is, "How does the media respectfully cover war and its victims?" The key word here being, respectfully. While writing I find myself coming back to the basics of journalism, proximity, and during war time it is key.

I remember, maybe a year back, there was a terrible roadside bombing in Iraq. In the days following the attack, The New York Times printed a picture that was short of something you would see in a horror film. I think, the details may be a little blurry, it was a photo of a woman who had been severely mauled by this bomb, and by mauled I mean legs blown off. She was on the side walk with horror just written across her face. And I think that the picture was buried in the paper, probably third or fourth page, above the fold. Later that week, I heard the photo editor of the Times on the radio being interviewed about that particular picture and his justification for running it like he did. And the most striking thing to me about the interview, and what I still remember, was his justification was that most of the people reading the Times would have no relation or proximal ties to that woman or situation. He said had it been a bombing in downtown New York City, the photo probably wouldn't have been run.

Graphics and photos have such an incredible ability to invoke all sorts of human emotions. These range from humor, seeing the rollerskating monkey, to horror, the roadside bombing photo, to empathy, take the photo of the girl with napalm burns running down the road in Vietnam. As journalists, and especially photojournalists, I think we take the power of photos for granted. And during war time, I think that many of our ethical aims are in constant conflict with one another. Anyway, on the SPJ website, there is a whole section devoted to helping journalists resolve ethical conflicts during war. Here is the section devoted to help you determine whether your motivations to run a particular picture are for the right reasons. It gives journalists an excellent framework to help decide whether to run a photo or not run it.

Assessing Our Motivation in Publishing or Suppressing Information or Graphics
---Why do we believe the public needs this information, aside from the fact that a journalist has gotten wind of it?
— Are we trying to draw attention to our own news organization, to create a “buzz,” to gain an “exclusive”? If so, how much has that factor influenced our decision-making?
— Is our primary motivation informing the public? Or is it entertaining the public, exciting emotional responses, responding to government pressure or “branding” an image or idea?
— If we believe we are trying to perform a public service by publication, what precisely is the nature of that service, and how credible, useful and important is it to the public?
— Is patriotism a primary factor in our decision? Would we consider it important to publish or suppress the information if we had no national allegiance?
— Is the contemplated “play” of our coverage commensurate with the news value of the story? If not, what other factors have entered into our decision?

Here is the link to the full site with all of the other frameworks for other war time ethical dilemmas.

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