Why Do Some MSMers Want to Publish Grisly Photos of Dead Bodies?

September 9th, 2005 4:26 PM

What would you do if you opened up your morning newspaper or turned on the local television news and found grisly photos of one of your parents, or a brother, sister, uncle, cousin or a close personal friend? You would be outraged. And rightfully so.

But some of my colleagues in the mainstream media claim they can’t report properly the terrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina unless the Federal Emergency Management Agency allows them to photograph dead bodies up close and personal.

Their claim came in response to FEMA’s refusal to allow journalists to accompany recovery teams searching for victims of the disaster.

"It's impossible for me to imagine how you report a story whose subject is death without allowing the public to see images of the subject of the story," said Larry Siems of the PEN American Center, according to a Reuters story.

Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press agreed with Siems, saying: “You cannot report on the disaster and give the public a realistic idea of how horrible it is if you don't see that there are bodies as well."

Siems and Daugherty are unnecessarily raising a question of common decency to the level of government censorship. Here are three reasons why it is not censorship:

First, the FEMA decision is irrelevant because pictures of dead bodies have already been televised and published. Shepherd Smith of FOX News, for example, did a moving piece last week on an elderly man who collapsed and died on one of the bridges on I-10 in New Orleans. His body was covered and we only saw it from a distance.

That is the way responsible journalism is done. I’ve been there as a newspaper editor making decisions about whether to publish a particular photograph of a murder victim, the carnage created by a suicide bomber or the aftermath of a terrible car crash. If it is necessary to show bodies to convey a story, it should be done carefully and respectfully, not merely to shock and sicken.

But don’t just take my word for it that this is the traditional standard, listen to MSNBC’s Mark Effron: "Our role is to show reality. We are showing bodies but not in close-ups. Our correspondents and videographers have conveyed the sense of horror without close-ups."

Second, FEMA’s decision won’t prevent a single journalist from reporting the disaster fully and honestly. Even if many news organizations had not already published pictures and video of Katrina dead, journalists would now find numerous ways of getting around the FEMA decision. That’s what journalists are paid to do – to get the news no matter what kind of bureaucratic obstacles are placed in their way.

Let’s not forget that Hurricane Katrina is America’s worst-ever and most thoroughly covered natural disaster. There are hundreds of reporters on the scene and there is no way the government could prevent their doing their work, short of putting up a police line around the entire Gulf region and throwing anybody with a press pass in the slammer.

Third, the uncompromising demand that journalists be allowed on those FEMA boats raises this question: What is the purpose of publishing grisly photos if not to shock? Is it merely to “sell more newspapers” or could it be the demand is just another scream from the “Blame Bush for Everything” crowd?

Denver Post tv critic Joanne Ostrow provides a hint about the ideological agenda at work in some quarters of the mainstream media:

"The cadavers tell a story; they are evidence in the debate in Washington: Why were there so many fatalities from a predicted natural disaster? Defenders of the administration warn against pointing fingers (former President George H.W. Bush disparages the 'blame game' and makes a face as if the idea smells as bad as New Orleans). Critics of the weak, delayed rescue efforts want answers."

But why are so many of these critics only demanding answers from Bush? When are these critics going to ask New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagins why he didn’t follow his own evacuation plan, which called for using the city’s 500+ school buses to evacuate the old, the sick and the poor who couldn’t evacuate on their own?

And when will the critics demand that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco explain why, according to The New York Times, she “balked at giving up control of the [National] Guard” so the Pentagon could send her the 40,000 combat troops she requested?

Good journalism means asking tough questions of all the politicians, not just those with a big R beside their name.

A veteran newspaper journalist, Mark Tapscott is Director of The Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy. This column first appeared on Townhall.com.