AP didn’t have to run dying Marine’s photo
The controversy came to light over the Labor Day weekend when Defense Secretary Robert Gates begged the AP to honor the request of the family of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard not to run a photo of the young man taken in the moments after he was shot in combat on Aug. 14.
But the AP ran the photo, anyway. While it was well within its rights to do so, was the need to publish the picture so compelling as to knowingly compound a family’s grief?
I don’t think it was, as I will discuss in a moment. First, the background:
The AP reports that it waited until after Bernard was buried on Aug 24 to show the picture to the Marine’s grieving family members, saying the agency planned to put the photo on the wire along with a story about the ambush in which he died. The family immediately objected to the publication of the picture and asked Gates to urge the AP not to do so.
After some internal soul-searching, the AP decided to publish the photo on Sept. 4 because “we believe this image is part of the history of this war,” said AP senior managing editor John Daniszewski. “The story and photos are in themselves a respectful treatment and recognition of sacrifice."
A respectful treatment? Arguably. A recognition of sacrifice? Perhaps. But historic? No. And that’s why I question the decision to run the photo.
Had the picture not generated this bit of controversy, it would have been little noted and soon forgotten, because its news value was modest. Distressing as the subject is, it unfortunately is just another of thousands of pictures of death and destruction in the long, depressing blur of images produced over eight, long years of war in the Middle East.
With solemn respect to the tragic sacrifice of this young American, this wasn’t a dramatic news photo like Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, a game-changing image like the pictures from Abu Gharib prison or an instant icon on the order of the naked girl running down a road after a napalm attack in Vietnam.
The Bernard photo was another picture of another senseless death in a string of thousands of senseless deaths. It was not particularly newsworthy, because it neither altered the well-established narrative of the conflict nor added anything appreciably new to its bloody history.
While it would it would be fully appropriate to publish the picture as breaking news or in the absence of an objection from the family, there is not sufficient journalistic value in this image to justify the pain its publication evidently has caused.
Knowing well in advance of publication of the family’s objections to the picture, the AP would have been within the bounds of responsible and, yes, compassionate journalism to not publish it.
The AP acted sensibly and sensitively when it informed the family about the picture and the story well before they were scheduled to be published. The otherwise commendable process broke down when the AP disregarded the family’s objections. It didn’t have to end that way.
Plenty of stories, pictures, sound bites and video don’t make the news every day, because editors find them to be disruptive, distasteful or otherwise offensive to common decency. Unnecessaily adding to the grief of a military family suffering a fresh loss is an offense against common sense, if not common decency.
Publishing this photo was a judgment call – the kind of decision that reporters, photographers and editors make every minute of every day. And judgment means weighing not only the quality of a story or an image but also its impact.
Although I cherish the principle of an unfettered press that can publish freely without fear or favor, there was nothing in the public interest that demanded the publication of this picture.