Airing Graphic Footage  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   May 2003

Airing Graphic Footage   

By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."     

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The debate about whether television should show graphic pictures of casualties that flared up during the war in Iraq has its origins in the Vietnam War. The debate involves perceptions of the ways in which visual images affect public support for military conflicts, and the extent to which public sensibilities should sway decisions about using graphic pictures of combat.

The Vietnam conflict was known as "the first living-room war" because it was the first to be covered extensively by television. During the decade-long war, Americans saw thousands of reports about the war on the evening news. These dispatches weren't censored. Journalists had access to the battlefield as long as they followed military rules for protecting operational security.

As the conflict dragged on during the 1960s and early '70s, public support for the war declined. Many military officers believed (and some continue to believe) that negative press reports, especially graphic television images, were responsible.

Military and academic researchers say rising U.S. casualties, not press coverage, led to increased opposition to the war. Their analysis of polling data and the content of television news programs supports this conclusion.

Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., author of "On Strategy," a book about the Vietnam conflict, stated that "blaming the news media for the loss of the Vietnam War was wrong." He wrote that the loss resulted from the government's failure to convince the public that the war's objectives were valid. This made the American people unwilling to accept an enormous number of casualties, as they had been during World War II.

William M. Hammond of the U.S. Army Center of Military History says television news organizations actually "went along" with the military's request in 1966 to minimize images of casualties. The networks agreed because they feared losing access to the battlefield or, "more likely, because they feared that gruesome pictures broadcast into homes at the dinner hour would prompt viewers to switch stations," Hammond wrote in his two-volume history of news coverage of Vietnam.

One study showed that only 76 of more than 2,300 television reports about Vietnam over a five-year period depicted heavy fighting or casualties, Hammond wrote. Many battlefield scenes "paled in comparison with the choreographed violence of such popular television dramas as 'Gunsmoke.' "

Despite this evidence, the conviction that television was largely responsible for the U.S. defeat in Vietnam has persisted. This belief has had a profound effect during the past 30 years on efforts to control television images of conflict.

It contributed to the Pentagon's decision in the 1980s to adopt a news-management strategy that controlled information by controlling access to the battlefield. The approach was developed by the British military for the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War. It resulted in coverage that was almost devoid of casualties, and helped shape public-opinion polls that showed overwhelming support for the war.

The Pentagon tried this strategy during the 1983 invasion of Grenada. The Defense Department barred journalists from the island for the first 48 hours. Meanwhile, the Pentagon provided the press with casualty-free visuals of the conflict, and Reagan administration officials offered optimistic statements about the operation's progress. News organizations used this material, even as they complained about the restricted access. The initial news reports presented the image of a successful operation with few casualties. This coverage buttressed public support for the invasion.

The Defense Department used this news-management strategy again during the 1989 invasion of Panama and the first gulf war in 1991 (see "Collective Amnesia," October 2000). As with Grenada, the strategy resulted in very few images of casualties and very high public-approval ratings for the White House and the Pentagon. Much of the footage of the gulf conflict involved U.S. planes taking off from ships and Pentagon videos showing U.S. munitions hitting their targets with absolute accuracy.

But media analysts and former military officers were concerned that these images presented an inaccurate picture of war. They criticized the Pentagon and the White House for presenting a sanitized view of military conflict that could make Americans more willing to accept short-term wars as an alternative to diplomacy.

The American people, however, supported the government's policy. A postwar poll in 1991 by the then-Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press showed that nearly 70 percent supported the press restrictions and 90 percent expressed confidence that the military was providing accurate information about the war.

Meanwhile, most U.S. news media did not show the public graphic pictures of the gulf war even when they had the opportunity. Neither television nor print organizations used shocking images of Iraqi casualties taken on the "Highway to Hell" at the end of the war. For example, the Associated Press declined to transmit Ken Jarecke's photo of a charred Iraqi corpse because it was "a little too graphically, gruesomely violent," an AP editor said at the time. Jarecke later criticized this decision when he published a portfolio and commentary in American Photo magazine. "I think people should see this," he wrote. "If we're big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it."

British photo editor Colin Jacobson criticized such "insidious forms of self-censorship" in "Underexposed," a book about photographic censorship published last year. He said the "shifting cultural values and norms" that affect what is acceptable or unacceptable in photography are "destructive to genuine journalism."

But U.S. news media found when they strayed from those norms, people were outraged. When television and print news organizations showed video and still photographs in 1993 of cheering Somalis dragging the body of a U.S. soldier through the streets, they received angry calls and letters (see "When Pictures Drive Foreign Policy," December 1993). The irony is that reporter Paul Watson, then with the Toronto Star, took the photographs only because the Pentagon had stated that reports about previous incidents of Somalis abusing the bodies of U.S. soldiers were untrue.

Watson also was aware of U.S. sensitivities when he shot the photographs. His first frames included the partly exposed genitalia of the dead American, so he shot additional pictures showing only the head and torso. "I didn't want to give any editor an excuse not to use the picture," Watson said in an interview for a Freedom Forum Newseum publication.

Since that time, questions about taste and public backlash against news media that show graphic casualty images have played an important role in discussions about coverage of U.S. military operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan, as well as Iraq.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says these questions pose "one of the great decision-making issues" for news organizations covering such conflicts. "They do have to decide how much is too much," she says. "It would be inaccurate to sanitize the images that are being sent back. But there's also a question of how far do you go?"

Harold Evans, former editor of the Times of London and a contributing editor to U.S. News & World Report, raised a different question in an essay last year. He asked whether a visual image "had a social or historic significance and, if it did, whether the shocking detail was necessary for a proper understanding of the event."

Evans would have used the picture of the Iraqi corpse taken during the first gulf war. People "ought to have a clear idea of the sacrifices being made, of what is being done in their name," he wrote.

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