As often happens with horrific images, some newspaper readers and television viewers expressed outrage Thursday when the news media displayed pictures of the charred bodies of Americans being dragged through the streets of Fallujah while crowds rejoiced.
The images were powerful–so powerful, in fact, that they may have threatened to overpower the words meant to give a story context and to leave readers and viewers hungry for more explanation.
“Moving pictures tend to overwhelm everything else,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Syracuse University Center for the Study of Popular Television. “Pictures such as those from Fallujah aren’t the kind that say 1,000 words–those pictures need 1,000 words.”
By midafternoon Wednesday, the raw footage taken by a cameraman for Associated Press Television News shortly after the ambush was accessible in its entirety over the Internet. Still photographers showed up soon after. For producers and editors, the difficulty came in determining which images were the most compelling yet suitable for airing or print.
Jon Banner, executive producer at ABC‘s “World News Tonight,” said the network decided to air video that included images of two badly burned bodies hanging from a Euphrates River bridge. CNN did the same. A photo of the bridge scene ran on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among other newspapers. The Chicago Sun-Times used a less graphic picture of a burning car and celebrating Iraqis on its front page.
“NBC Nightly News” and Fox News elected not to televise shots of the bodies being dragged down the street or hanging from the bridge, while “CBS Evening News” used images that blurred the bodies, a practice also followed in part by ABC. None of the networks chose to air the more graphic images of the bodies on fire or being beaten with a lead pipe.
Fulfilling a responsibility
“In our view it would have been wrong to sanitize those images,” Banner said. “You certainly don’t want it to become ghoulish, but at the same time there is a responsibility to show your viewers what is going on there.”
Because the war in Iraq is a controversial issue in an election year, Managing Editor Anne Gordon of The Philadelphia Inquirer said she worried that the front-page photo choice could be construed as a political statement.
But “soft-pedaling that information would not serve the nation or this newspaper,” she said.
For many, the video images from Fallujah were reminiscent of the 1993 pictures of a crowd in Mogadishu, Somalia, dragging the body of a U.S. soldier. Like pictures from the Vietnam War, the Somalia scenes turned opinion against the U.S. effort and helped lead to a withdrawal.
In both cases, the presence of photographers may have inflamed the crowd’s passions, said David Klatell, academic dean at Columbia University‘s Graduate School of Journalism.
“There is simply no question that everywhere in this world, people know what cameras are and react to them,” he said, adding that he was struck by the number of people in the front-page photo used by the Tribune and The New York Times who appeared to be looking at the camera. “But cameras by themselves don’t cause people to behave any differently. Sometimes they may even behave better.”
Steve Capus, executive producer of “NBC Nightly News,” said he elected not to show the bridge scene on video, explaining that “this is a broadcast that airs at the dinner hour.” Instead, NBC used video of the crowd and burning cars while correspondent Richard Engel offered a voiceover description.
“We don’t necessarily have to show those images to tell the story,” Capus said.
In some cases, networks used still photographs instead of moving images. Klatell said a still photo offers the viewer none of the distractions found in a video that may also include sound. “Still photos arrest you, they make you stop and think,” he said.
Picture selection often depends on how a news event is viewed.
Cissy Baker, director of news operations at Tribune Broadcasting, which like the Chicago Tribune is part of Tribune Co., said that the ambush was different from other attacks in Iraq. The story was not just about the war but about bodies being pulled from cars, dragged in the street and hung on a bridge.
Baker said each local news operation was given the option not to air certain images. Most, she said, showed video of the bodies being hung from the bridge.
Pat Brockman of Elgin, one of many people who called the Chicago Tribune to complain about its front-page photo, suggested that the story could have been told without the photo.
“I keep thinking about the hurt it causes the families to have this photo everywhere,” she said. “Couldn’t you show the crowd and not the bodies?”