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Ombudsman

You be the editor: Would you run photos of US troops toying with Taliban corpses?

Imagine you’re the editor. It’s 10:30 a.m., time for the daily news meeting at which you and the editors who work for you decide what’s going to be on tomorrow’s front page and what’s going to get special treatment on the website today. That includes the lead photo, which is today’s big decision.

This morning’s Los Angeles Times has a front-page photo showing American soldiers sporting with the body of a Taliban suicide bomber. One soldier positions the arm of the bomber so his dead hand comes from behind to clasp the shoulder of the soldier in the foreground, who looks off-camera with an odd smile. The face of the dead man is plain behind him.

Inside the Times is another photo, in which American soldiers pose exultantly with Afghan policemen who hold by its feet the bloody, mangled lower carcass of a Taliban suicide bomber. Both photos are on the Times website. The Times story explains that a soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division provided those and 16 other photos of members of his unit posing and mugging with enemy corpses. And that the Pentagon had asked the Times not to run them.

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The question is, will you run those photos in Stars and Stripes?

While you’re pondering that, here’s a sample of the thinking that went on in the Stripes news meeting Wednesday morning, when the L.A. Times actually broke that story and newsrooms all over the country actually had to make that decision.

“We have to always be sensitive to our audience, but not to the point that we’re afraid to do our job,” Editorial Director Terry Leonard told me. “We wouldn’t want to show anything gruesome, but we thought it would be good, with all the hoopla, to show what it was all about.”

That meant the “dead hand” photo was probably OK, he said, but the other one was clearly unacceptable. As the discussion was going on, editors were checking to see what photos the Times had made available on the wire.

Meanwhile, based on the other news of the day, the story was headed for the front page and it would lead the website.

“This is a big story on the heels of the Marines abusing a corpse,” Leonard said. “We also just had the guy go berserk and kill 17 people. What’s behind all this?

“It was the strongest story of the day,” he said, “the one our readers would be interested in talking about.”

The Times story provided some other information that could be considered in the discussion about whether the photos should run in Stripes and on stripes.com. The photos had been taken two years ago. They were provided by a soldier who was granted anonymity by the Times, but who was described as serving with the 82nd Airborne’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. He said he provided the photos to show a dangerous failure of leadership and discipline in the unit. The Times had shown military officials the photos and authenticated the soldier’s service and the unit’s participation in the missions he described. After the Pentagon asked the Times not to run the photos, the newspaper delayed publication for 72 hours.

In the story, Times Editor Davan Maharaj explained the decision to run the photos: “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.”

Online, the judgment that Stripes readers would be interested in the story proved true right away. The comments began as soon as the initial story was posted on stripes.com, illustrated only with the green-and-white logo of the International Security Assistance Force.

Some comments, like this one from a person who used the screen name “bassfishnjunkie,” predicted retaliation: “An American Soldier, one of my brothers/sisters, will undoubtedly die this week and the LA Propaganda machine will be used by the bad guys as their ‘justified’ reasoning. Editorial discretion is at an all-time low, responsible journalism has declined to embarrassing levels.”

Others, like this one from Matthew L. Kees, credited the motives attributed to the soldier: “Terrible things happen in battles, but one of the things we should never accept is to allow OUR troops to become animals. This was an honest soldier’s attempt to point out the COMMANDERS were not only allowing this, but also encouraged this type of behavior.”

Commenter “jonnyqwest” credited the Times for putting the photos into public view: “Our military is an extension of we, the people of these United States. Therefore, the military is accountable to us in various ways and the vigorous free press has a function and a duty to keep us informed even to the conduct of our troops in theater.”

In the Stars and Stripes news meeting, the editors were leaning toward running the “dead hand” photo — at least in the Mideast edition. Delivered to homes in the Europe edition, it might not have passed the “breakfast table” test.

“We would have been inclined to print the one photo because it wasn’t that gruesome,” Leonard said. “But it didn’t quite tell the story. You couldn’t really tell what the guy in the foreground was smiling about.”

As it turned out, the L.A. Times took the decision out of the Stripes editors’ hands — and out of the hands of editors all over the country. The Times decided not to make the photos available on the normal wire, on the grounds that they couldn’t provide images they didn’t own to other papers.

“The simple truth is, we didn’t have to decide,” Leonard said.

Even so, the right ethical wheels were turning, as they were with other controversial decisions, such as running the photo of wounded American soldiers after a bombing two weeks ago. The newsroom’s process was the right one — a careful discussion weighing the impact of the photos and the obligations of journalism.

What decision would you have made? Yes, it would help to see the photos. For that, though, you’ll have to go to latimes.com.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.

Ernie Gates’ blog
 

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