Wednesday, November 10, 2004

American Journalism Review: Images of War

American Journalism Review: Images of War:
"This year the American news media have displayed pictures of burned bodies in Fallujah, flag-draped coffins coming home from Iraq and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But were they too squeamish when it came to showing the carnage of war during the invasion last year?"

In April 2003, Time magazine published a number of photographs from the Iraq war, each dramatically spread across two full pages. Among them, the image of a dead Iraqi lying in the desert. The photograph was powerful--the man's mouth slightly open, his face fully visible, his body lying on the dry, cracked red earth, a column of U.S. military vehicles in the distance. It was a tragic image of war, but more poetic than graphic.

On the last page of the same issue, Joe Klein showed readers a 1943 Life magazine photo of American soldiers, dead on the shores of Papua New Guinea. Where, he wondered in the essay, in this war of embeds and digitally transmitted images, were photos as unsettling as this black-and-white taken by George Strock in World War II? "We are closer to war than ever before--hardly half an hour goes by without some embedded ace breathlessly reporting, in real time, from the front," Klein wrote. "But the war we are seeing is bowdlerized, PG-rated... At a moment like this, the media should be an irritant--shocking us, shaking us, making sure that we're as alert and uncomfortable as possible in the comfort of our living rooms."

Klein was among friends with such comments--many chastised the media for presenting a sanitized version of events. Where were the shocking photographs? Where were the bodies? It was a war in which hardly anyone seemed to die.

A year later, few--besides Michael Moore--were still criticizing the press for holding back. In April 2004 the public saw the mutilated, burned and beaten bodies of four American contractors in Fallujah; the rows of flag-draped coffins coming home from Iraq; and the unfathomable images of the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. "It is as though, rather suddenly, the gloves have come off, and the war seems less sanitized, more personally intrusive," wrote Michael Getler, ombudsman at the Washington Post.

In retrospect, was the press, in the beginning, reluctant to show graphic images from Iraq? Were editors passing over pictures of the war's human toll in favor of those depicting military might? Was there a fear that showcasing bloody images would be deemed critical of the war effort?

Some argue news executives still are worrying a bit too much about what the public's reaction might be to blood and gore. But most of the journalists interviewed for this article reject the notion that the media shied away from using images of civilian casualties and the like. The images changed as the nature of the conflict changed, they say--though many believe the U.S. press has crept toward the conservative over the years in its handling of graphic images.…
con·cept: American Journalism Review: Images of War