THE BLOG

When is it Not the Public's Right?

09/09/2009 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last Friday (Sept. 4) Huffington Post ran a photo on the front page of its site with the headline, "Snapshot of an Unseen War." The photo depicted the final hours of life of Lance Corporal Joshua M. Bernard, 21, after he was struck down by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan on August 14.

Several newspapers around the country chose to run The Associated Press photo; several chose not to.

In The New York Times "Media Decoder," Katharine Seelye wrote that, "...Defense Secretary Robert Gates... upbraided The Associated Press for its decision to go against the wishes of a young Marine's family and publish [the photo].

"In a scathing letter to Tom Curley, president and chief executive of The A.P., Mr. Gates called the wire service's decision 'appalling' and said the issue was not one of constitutionality but 'judgment and common decency.'"

In defending its position, The A.P. said that it decided "to make public an image that conveys the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it."

However, "The photograph in question," Seelye points out, "was part of a package of articles and photographs... 'Everybody felt this was an important document of the war,' Michael Oreskes, The A.P.'s senior managing editor said, 'the whole package, not this picture by itself."

"Before sending the package to its newspaper clients," the Times wrote, "The A.P. sent a reporter to Maine to talk with the man's family. They did so out of respect, Michael Oreskes, said. But the father, John, an ex-Marine himself, asked the wire service not to publish the picture, saying it would only hurt the family more. He repeated that request in a later phone conversation."

"I am begging you," Secretary Gates said in a conversation with Curley, "to defer to the wishes of the family."

Gates then sent a follow-up letter to The A.P. head. "The American people understand that death is an awful and inescapable part of war," Gates wrote. Publishing the photo against the wishes of the family, Gates argued, would be an "unconscionable departure from the restraint that most journalists and publications have shown covering the military since September 11th."

"Kelly McBride, who teaches journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute, said that if a news organization is thoughtful, conducts a careful review, talks with the family and considers all options, it almost has no choice but to publish.

"Curley," McBride said, "is standing up for the truth. I don't fault the family for objecting, but there's not universal agreement about what we're doing in Afghanistan and the public has the right to be part of that conversation."

This is a difficult issue, and I can only guess at all the back and forth arguments that must have taken place within The A.P. I have visited The Associated Press website, read their explanation and viewed the slideshow and commentary package by photographer Julie Jacobson. It's a strong presentation; made all the more powerful when the full 5 ½ minute show is seen and heard.

From an ethical perspective, I can see genuine reasons for releasing the complete package, most notably that the public has the right to see the true cost of war.

However, I do not believe that that right should come at the expense of the wishes of the family of the fallen soldier.

This is an occasion where respect for both the Marine and his family should be honored over any "truth of war" argument, especially when that truth can be told in many other ways. I honestly could have felt the same impact from The A.P. presentation without the inclusion of the mortally wounded soldier. However, the majority of news outlets, including Huffington Post chose to show the single photo, and that's what I disagree with.

The reality is we see the cost of war whenever news channels televise the return of flag-draped coffins of dead soldiers - televised with the permission of family members. NBC correspondent Richard Engle's extraordinary front line reports from Afghanistan are a very real and very sobering on-going reminder of the cost of war without including dead or dying soldiers.

Merrilee Carlson, president of Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission said: "The last thing that a mother or father wants to see is their child in immense pain and dying on the battlefield. This family should be able to move on with the difficult task of remembering their son as he lived, not as he died."

When considering the publication of photos of any fallen soldier, the family should have the final say. I hope and pray that any of the staff at Huffington Post will never be in a position to "click" on the site only to see the final hours of a family member.

That's one truth that most of us would not want slapped in our face.

Jim Lichtman has been writing and speaking on ethics since 1995. His regular commentaries can be found at www.ethicsStupid.com.