Shocking photos from the front: Journalists have long shown both the heroism and horrors of war

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Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous observation that old soldiers never die might just as well have been said of old controversies about media coverage of dying young soldiers. But instead of fading away, as the general's old soldiers did, debate over journalistic treatment of conflict renews with each new war that comes along.

The latest flareup is U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' objection to what he called the "appalling" decision by the Associated Press to transmit to its member newspapers a photograph depicting the dying moments of Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard of Maine, the victim of a Taliban grenade in southern Afghanistan last month. The soldier's father also opposed use of the photo, arguing, as did Mr. Gates, that it was disrespectful to his son's memory.

AP's director of photography, Santiago Lyon, defended the decision on the grounds of journalistic responsibility. AP journalists, he said, "document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is."

The embedded photographer who took the photo said that to ignore the moment "would have been wrong."

"Death," argued Julie Jacobson, "is a part of life and most certainly a part of war. Isn't that why we're here? To document for now and for history the events of this war?"

Yes, that is why journalists are in Afghanistan -- and in Iraq and in Vietnam before that. They are there not only to record history, but to reveal the realities and outcomes of decisions made by elected politicians to send troops to foreign lands. It is part of maintaining an informed electorate in a democracy.

This photo carries on a tradition of war photography that documents not only the heroism of the nation's armed forces, but also what the AP termed the "grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it."

It is a long tradition, indeed, reaching back to the beginnings of photography. Who can forget Alexander Gardner's searing Civil War image of a rebel sharpshooter slumped against a boulder at Gettysburg? Or Robert Capa's picture of a loyalist militiaman as he collapsed into death during the Spanish Civil War?

The chief problem of such images is their power. They tell the same story as reporters' words; but the written reports produce less, or no, public or government outrage. Pictures offer a more compelling truth because of the strength of the visual image.

One of the more noted photos of wartime tragedy is AP photographer Nick Ut's June 8, 1972 horrific picture of a young Vietnamese girl running naked toward the camera after being burned by a napalm bomb. That photo has been the subject of journalistic ethics seminars ever since, featuring arguments on behalf of maintaining dignity and respect for the victims and their parents on the one side versus the public's right to know the ugly truths of war on the other.

Similar debates have accompanied other war-related images that have appeared in the media. One was over the publication by the Seattle Times in 2004 of a photo showing the coffins of soldiers being loaded onto cargo planes at Kuwait International Airport for shipment to the United States -- despite a ban by both Bush administrations on the taking of such photos. Another was the airing by CBS News in 1965 of footage of U.S. Marines setting fire to peasants' homes in Vietnam -- a report that brought an angry telephone call to CBS from President Lyndon Johnson, who felt the report undermined the Vietnam war effort.

And that -- the ability of the image to affect public opinion and political debate -- is often what lies beneath the discussion.

"Since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have worried that their military actions would lose support once the public glimpsed the remains of U.S. soldiers' homecomings on all military bases," wrote Kate West of the University of Texas for a textbook study of the Seattle Times case.

The decision by editors and news directors to publish or withhold such images can be defended on solid ethical grounds either way. But opting to use them does not mean that they disrespect the values of privacy or dignity or that they enjoy offending the public or victims' families. They simply have come down on behalf of what they see as serving the greater public good by documenting a truth about warfare.

It kills people.

If the result is public opposition to, or support for, the war in question, so be it.

Steve Hallock teaches media ethics in the School of Communication at Point Park University ( ).


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