TCU Daily Skiff Tuesday, April 6, 2004
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Newspapers fail sensitivity
Photos of dead bodies don’t belong on cover

Patrick Jennings is a junior economics major from Melbourne, Fla.

This isn’t a column about the attacks in Fallujah, Iraq. I don’t have the skills to give a respectful and adequate take on what happened last Wednesday. However, I am fully capable of expressing my disgust at the print media for how they handled the coverage.

On the Thursday after the attacks I picked up a copy of the New York Times, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and USA Today before leaving to get my car repaired. I had heard about what happened but hadn’t read a full report of the incident yet.

And I hadn’t seen the photos.

The New York Times ran a large, full-color picture of Iraqis celebrating in front of two corpses hanging from a bridge. Inside, there were more large color photos of a burning SUV and a mob beating a charred corpse with their shoes. The blackened foot at the bottom of the page is the only hint that it really is a corpse.

USA Today ran the mob photo in color on the front page, but the foot is cropped out. Inside they have the bridge photo in black and white.

The Star-Telegram had a large picture above the fold of Iraqis surrounding a burning SUV. Below the fold was the bridge photo, with warnings of graphic content accompanying the story and an explanation for the obscene photo. Inside was a photo of the base where the men worked.

The Associated Press did a story on the media coverage and mentioned the New York Sun. I got my trial subscription and downloaded their front page. The huge dominant photo at the top of the page was a pair of hands reaching out from a sea of fire. Below it, and almost as large, was the now ubiquitous bridge photo. Part of the caption, “The top photo shows the hands of one flame-engulfed victim.” You have to love that sort of casual detachment.

Why put those graphic photos in the paper? Some newspapers didn’t show bodies at all. An even larger amount, including the LA Times, didn’t make charred corpses the first thing you see in the morning paper. So it is possible for credible news organizations to report on this without turning readers’ stomachs. Yes, you have to blur out a partially exposed nipple, but you can leave burnt bodies unblurred on the front page.

There is a responsibility to convey the gravity of the situation to your readers, I'll agree with that. I also know the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But showing a man burn to death on the front page of your newspaper has crossed into the realm of sensationalism. It’s making the press a postscript to a snuff film.

Children walk by newsstands with these photos brazenly shown. As a kid, I would get the morning paper for my dad from the driveway. I don’t mean to sound like there’s a stick up my ass, but 10-year-olds shouldn’t have to be exposed to things like this. What do you tell that kid?

Newspapers should never feel obliged to “protect” their readers from the truth, but the truth isn’t at stake. The people got the who, what, when, where, why and how from every newspaper mentioned previously. Newspapers, however, should feel obliged to give an honest, objective analysis of world events without the use of sensationalized photos.
Cable news has lead to a decline in newspaper readership, but this isn’t the way to win people back. Exercise some self-restraint, retain your integrity and don’t become print versions of Fox specials.
TCU Daily Skiff ©2004
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