After the Battle of Gettysburg, during the American Civil War, by Mathew Brady. (Via.)
Joerg Colberg at Conscientious has a highly thought-provoking essay on his blog about the decision, by the New York Times, to reproduce a picture of the U.S. ambassador to Libya shortly after the embassy was attacked by Islamist militants. In the picture, Ambassador Christopher Stevens appears battered, bruised and glassy-eyed. He was one of four fatalities. The U.S. State Department asked that the picture be removed, but the paper declined, citing the picture’s “newsworthy” qualities.
In his essay, Colberg questions the premise that this is a newsworthy shot:
…there it is not a simple and obvious step to demand that we need to see the corpses of people blown up by our drones or, in this current case, the body of the dead or dying ambassador to Libya. In much the same way, if there is shootout in Manhattan then we also do not need to see the dead bodies of the various victims (as happened just a little while ago). Being told what happened is enough – seeing the bodies does not add even the tiniest amount of extra insight.
I think a pretty simply rule would be to say that anyone who does not exist as a mental image in the larger public’s mind should be granted the dignity (yes, dignity) not to have her or his dead body shown in a news context (Not to mention what the relatives have to go through). There is no newsworthiness to showing such a photograph, as the case of Mr Stevens makes very clear.
Initially, I was inclined to agree with Colberg, but after giving this some thought, I have to respectfully disagree. One, I think the photo of Stevens is brutally powerful, and it brings home the violence in the way that more abstract images (a man holding a weapon; charred architectural remains) do not. In addition, I don’t know that the purpose of a picture is always to add “insight.” Sometimes it’s simply to illustrate what happened — in this case, a brutal attack. Secondly, I disagree that showing some people’s deaths is somehow acceptable while others are off limits. (As in: Che Guevara, okay; unknown American soldiers and military contractors, not so much.)