In the midst of this era of chronic anxiety about media complacency and dire warnings of the death of newspapers and professional journalism, a firestorm broke out the first week of September when The Associated Press published a graphic image of an injured, dying U.S. Marine caught in an ambush in Afghanistan.
The news service released a photo shot in August by embedded AP photojournalist Julie Jacobson showing mortally wounded 21-year-old U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard moments after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the village of Dahaneh, in the Helmand province. In the photo, two fellow Marines give aid to their wounded comrade, who moments later was evacuated by helicopter to Camp Leatherneck where he died on the operating table. The photo was not published until after Bernard's burial in the U.S., but upon its release, an enormous controversy erupted regarding its publication.
AP's "Death of a Marine: A photographer's journal," a 5-1/2-minute audio slideshow narrated by the photographer, can be found here.
The choice by AP was neither mindless nor accidental nor was it an illegal release of sensitive information. Upon learning Thursday, Sept. 4, that the photo was in a media package scheduled to publish the next day in AP's print, broadcast and online media outlets, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates requested that AP not release the photo out of respect for Bernard's father, who he said opposed the publication. AP had shown the images to the family before their release but decided to go ahead even though the family had expressed reservations.
Statements issued by AP director of photography Santiago Lyon and senior managing editor John Daniszewski explained a carefully considered decision by the news agency to fulfill its obligation to the public to show the real consequences of war.
"AP journalists document world events every day. Afghanistan is no exception. We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war there, however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is," said Lyon. Responding to Secretary Gates' and later public concern that Bernard's father opposed the publication of the image, Daniszewski issued a statement saying, "We understand Mr. Bernard's anguish. We believe this image is part of the history of this war. The story and photos are in themselves a respectful treatment and recognition of sacrifice."
An excellent review of the entire issue, including AP statements, links, and reader commentary, was published in The New York Times' LENS blog entitled "Behind the Scenes: To Publish or Not?" LENS also links to excerpts from Ms. Jacobson's powerful dispatch/journal entries published in The Boston Globe that illuminate her experience photographing the incident and her thoughts on publication of the raw image of the injured Cpl. Bernard.
In her journal, Ms. Jacobson expresses consideration, compassion and concern for the families of soldiers shown in conflict. Her mission as she states it: "Then, there's the journalism side of things, which is what I am and why I am here ... it is necessary for people to see the good, the bad, and the ugly in order to reflect upon ourselves as human beings." And reflecting we are. The publication of Jacobson's image of Cpl. Bernard has stimulated one of the most active discussions in recent memory.
The discussion is hardly new – 150 years old, in fact. It began with history's first photographic images of war. The photographic record has played a crucial and interactive part in the course of U.S. wars from the Civil War through both world wars and Vietnam, up to today. The argument contains a predictable set of issues pitting concerns about transparency, ethics, taste, sanitization or occlusion of the brutal realities of war, propaganda and censorship against those about political expediency, conflict, and control of information flow during war.
A related controversy over images documenting the return of U.S. war dead ended when the ban imposed by the previous administration was lifted by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in February 2009. There were two sides to the debate. On the one hand, there was an impassioned call for transparency and the public's right to know, and on the other, the Pentagon's desire/necessity/demand for secrecy. Secretary Gates resolved the issue by looking to neither side for authorization to release the images but instead placed the decision with the families of the fallen.
In asking AP to hold the graphic image of Cpl. Bernard due to the senior Bernard's preferences, the secretary took a similar stance to the one that resolved the controversy over images of returning flag-covered caskets. Requesting firmly but not demanding that AP defer to family wishes may defuse an even more explosive – and perhaps exponentially more corrosive – direct confrontation between the press and the Pentagon. According to Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell, AP's Daniszewski responded with respect for Gates' view, acknowledging that government and press sometimes have different perspectives, saying, "We thought that the image told a story of sacrifice; it told a story of bravery," adding, "We felt that the picture told a story that people needed to see and be aware of."
For as much outcry as there can be over the publication of difficult images, there is just as much embrace of previously banned information. The goal of the Fourth Estate is to provide the public with that information, and it is called the Fourth Estate because only by being fully informed can there be a chance of an educated public and a functioning democracy. When Gates lifted the ban on photos of flag-covered caskets of military casualties, The Boston Globe rushed to address the same journalistic concerns and need for public consciousness stated by Daniszewski after the AP flap over "Death of a Marine." In April 2009, the Globe's online newspaper division devoted 25 images in "The Big Picture" to the arrival of U.S. casualties of war at Dover AFB, Delaware.
The historical record is full of photographic images that in retrospect were crucial in shaping public opinion and determining the ever-evolving tide of events, especially in conflict and war. The evolution of current events depends as much as ever on journalism, on the photographic record, and still there is an amazing diversity of opinion about appropriateness and necessity of images. Veterans and active military, civilians, politicians, officials, and members of the press all weigh in from a slightly different perspective. What is appalling to some is necessary to others. More than anything, the press and the photographic record serve to provide information simply on what is, whether it is disturbing or not.
As Jacobson says in her notes, "It is necessary to be bothered from time to time. It is too easy to sit at Starbucks far away across the sea and read about the casualty and then move on without much of another thought about it. It is not as easy to see an image of that casualty and NOT think about it."
With the current crisis in journalism, most U.S. news organizations have greatly reduced their conflict coverage out of economic necessity, and many are consolidating with others for information gathering.
How will the same debate and struggles evolve in the future? As forms of media and access to information shift and change, as print media collapses and professional journalism is threatened, how will the equation change between the press's efforts to release information and countervailing efforts to control it?
Journal Entries of AP Photographer Julie Jacobson Embedded With U.S. Marines in Afghanistan