On Wednesday, The Los Angeles Times published graphic photographs of US soldiers posing with corpses and body parts of suicide bombers in Afghanistan, spurring a criminal investigation and condemnation of the activities by US government officials. The unsolicited photos, taken two years ago, were given to The Times by an anonymous soldier who said the photos demonstrated “a breakdown in leadership and discipline that he believed compromised the safety of the troops,” the article said.
After being shown the photos before publication, however, Pentagon officials such as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asked The Times not to publish the images, citing the potential risk of inciting violence against US troops by forces in Afghanistan, Poynter reported.
Ultimately, The Times editorial staff decided publishing the pictures was in the public interest, though the paper delayed publication as per request to allow the military time to increase protections for the soldiers shown in the photos, the article said.
The New York Times reported that Pentagon press secretary George E. Little stressed the notion that opposition to publication of the images was due to safety issues.
“Our concern is not about embarrassment,” Little said. “We recognize that this is inexcusable behavior depicted in the photos. This is all about force protection in Afghanistan.”
As the LA Times noted, there have been several other recent controversial incidents with US soldiers in Afghanistan that have garnered much media attention and strained US-Afghanistan relations, including an Internet video that surfaced in January, which depicted US soldiers urinating on dead bodies.
In addition to questions of safety, the content of the images themselves presented another editorial question for The Times: when is it acceptable to publish graphic images of violence? The newspaper chose to publish only two of 18 images provided by the anonymous soldier, some of which were more graphic than the photos published, Poynter reported.
“After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops,” said LA Times Editor Davan Maharaj in the original article.
The news industry recently faced a similar situation with the violent death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in October, after which graphic photographs of his dead body surfaced. UK newspapers such as The Guardian and the tabloid The Sun chose to publish the image on the front page, to the dismay of some readers and even editors who viewed publication of the pictures as celebratory, rather than objective reportage of the death.
Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade defended publication of the Gaddafi images as justified, writing, “this was one of those rare occasions when editors decided that it was a momentous news event worthy of breaking the normal rules of taste and discretion … with the pictures all over the net, it would have seemed strange for newspapers to ignore them.”
“Editors would appear to be failing in their duty to report on the reality of Gaddafi's death (more properly, execution),” he wrote. “It was news—gruesome, grisly, ghastly (choose your own shock adjective) news—and the images told a story of brutality and mob chaos that could not be explained in words alone.”
While The Los Angeles Times’ publication of the Afghanistan images certainly couldn’t be confused with a celebratory gesture, it still raises questions about what photographic material should and shouldn’t be published. In this case, though, the situation seems to have been dealt with diplomatically, especially in regards to military notification—The Times’ complied with the Pentagon’s request for publication delay for safety reasons while still maintaining an independent editorial policy. The newspaper also seems to have addressed the graphic nature of the photographs by choosing the lesser of evils, so to speak, publishing two of 18 presumably more violent images at the editors’ discretion to inform the American public of the situation. One thing is clear, though: there isn't a one-size-fits-all protocol for determining which images are appropriate to publish.