LONDON — As journalists from around the world rushed to air proof that Libya's long-serving dictator had died, many in Britain and the United States said Friday that they felt media had gone too far in pushing out explicit pictures of his bloody demise.
U.K. communications watchdog Ofcom said it had received complaints about numerous broadcasters that aired the images of a dazed or dead-looking Gadhafi being manhandled by his captors, while media commentators weighed the pros and cons of the unusually graphic images on Britain's Friday morning front pages.
"I would put the bar very high before I would use images like that," said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based school for professional journalists. "Just to use the images because you can is not a good enough answer."
Even by the standards of Britain's brash tabloids, Friday's front pages were graphic, with the Daily Mirror tabloid showing a particularly stark picture of the half-naked dictator lying in state and caked with dried blood. Other papers carried earlier grisly photographs of a wounded and distressed-looking Gadhafi carried on top of a rebel car.
American newspapers tended to shy away from the most disturbing images.
The Poynter Institute examined more than 400 U.S. papers collected by the Washington-based Newseum turned up only seven – including the New York Daily News and the New York Post – that used large images of Gadhafi's corpse on their front pages.
But broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic made heavy use of amateur footage of Gadhafi's violent capture, though in many cases they warned viewers to expect graphic content.
ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider called the images "the very definition of news," while in Britain the BBC defended its use of the images as crucial to dispelling "the swirl of rumor" as conflicting reports emerged about Gadhafi's state.
"We do not use such pictures lightly," BBC newsroom head Mary Hockaday wrote in a blog post. "The images of his dead body were an important part of telling the story to confirm reports of his death."
But some viewers who wrote in to The Associated Press expressed revulsion at the images of Gadhafi's death being recycled time and again across their television screens.
"It is wrong to be broadcasting these images on a regular basis in people's living rooms," Athens resident Maria Williamson said in an email.
Although the AP distributed photos and video of Gadhafi's corpse, it declined to send some images because they were particularly bloody and unlikely to be used by most subscribers.
Several shots were selected for use on the basis of their newsworthiness: They showed not only the corpse, but the initial tumult around it or, on Friday, the corpse being publicly displayed in a freezer to local residents.
"Whenever we are faced with images of a graphic nature, senior AP editors will confer about each individual image or video, carefully weighing matters of taste and appropriateness versus their news value, to arrive at the decision whether to distribute the images or not," Senior Managing Editor John Daniszewski said in an email.
Tompkins said editors could be justified in using gruesome photos if the pictures raised or supported critical questions of public interest – for example over the issue of how Gadhafi died.
So while he condemned shock journalism as "the lowest form of journalism," he allowed that on occasion sensitivities needed to be shoved aside.
"Sometimes truth is shocking," he said.
Dave Bauder and Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report.
Poynter Institute: http://www.poynter.org/
The BBC's blog: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/