Telling the Whole Story
September 2009

by Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard's tour of duty in Afghanistan ended abruptly on Aug. 14. He was mortally injured in a rocket-propelled grenade attack, the work of the Taliban.

Associated Press embed photojournalist Julie Jacobson captured an image of the unimaginable suffering of the young Marine on the battlefield in the aftermath.

The AP held back its photograph and video, also taken at the scene by another photographer, until after Bernard's family buried him in Maine.

The news agency then sent one of its reporters to notify his family in person that it planned to use the images in a story about the war in Afghanistan.

U. S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on behalf of Bernard's family and the military, pleaded with the AP to withhold the photo. He argued that circulating the image that was taken moments after the Marine's legs were mangled would only cause additional suffering for Bernard's family.

Despite the pleas, Associated Press President Thomas Curley chose to distribute the photograph. The agency argued that it has a journalistic responsibility to show the war's reality, "however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is." The AP noted that its coverage, in total, was both respectful and did not violate the military's rules governing embedded journalists.

The AP image of Bernard, transmitted Sept. 3, has reignited the long-running controversy over the role of journalism during wartime.

The controversy has always involved the conflicting interests of two cultural titans, a military charged with protecting the nation and a free press that has the task of informing the citizenry.

The military has historically favored less war-related information for public consumption while the journalists have always favored more.

The ethics of publishing a photo like this requires one to weigh and balance the possible harm that might result to those who have a stake in the outcome.

But first, a couple of assumptions are necessary.

We will assume that the military was sincere when saying that the embed rules, created to protect operational security, "recognize the inherent constitutional right of the media to cover combat operations."

We also assume that the Associated Press was doing its job of documenting "the world's events" with the intent of informing the public of the seriousness of war.

The military has asked embed journalists not to release identifiable images of casualties or injured soldiers in medical facilities before the notification of the next of kin.

The military offers "patient privacy and next of kin/family considerations" as the basis for its rules.

Presumably, families deserve better than to be notified of a catastrophe involving a loved one over the public airwaves and in the press.

Some insist that Cpl. Bernard, like any human being, had an expectation of privacy when he was critically injured on the battlefield.

Journalists routinely honor expectations of privacy of victims of a tragedy, for example, a serious car wreck, even though the event occurs in a public place.

The Bernard case is different, however, in that soldiers on the battlefield are not private citizens. War is a very public act. And, at the very least, the military has been inserted into a very public controversy.

The two stakeholders most likely to be injured by a decision whether to circulate the image are the Bernard family and the American public, for different reasons.

The Bernard family will clearly suffer further with the publication of the picture. The family has already had to bear the loss of a son, an unthinkable loss for most of us. The knowledge that an image of their son, frozen forever in the horrific moment after his body was torn apart, is circulating publicly can only add another layer of emotional violence to their already crushing burden.

Common decency tells us that adding to this family's misery is just wrong.

On the other hand, American citizens have a need and a right to know the outcomes of their collective decisions.

The American public sends young men and women to fight wars in its name.

The public has a say in the prosecution of a war.

Honest and committed journalists have risked their own lives to bring us war stories about the fact that the military is short on wartime personnel and materiel, and, perhaps even more importantly, an end game.

Without access to a reasonably complete story, the ability to make rational, informed decisions about what to do next is unlikely.

Looking at this picture requires courage. The photograph requires us to face up to what we are asking our young men and women to do on our behalf. The image demands that we have a serious, thoughtful discussion about where we are headed in this process.

We argue that the harm to the family is undeniably severe and thoroughly regrettable. However, it is not enough to allow the family or the government veto power over the distribution of the image of the injured Marine.

The Associated Press made the correct decision in not caving to the pressure.

Critics will argue that the photo is tasteless and adds no value to the story.

Not so. If everyone knew what the actual horror of war looked like, the image would not shock or appall.

For those who don't want to think about what the picture genuinely represents, the criticism affords a convenient excuse to look hard the other way.

As a nation, this conflict belongs to all of us, not only to the military or the government. The image of the injured Marine forces us, as citizens, to ask ourselves what we are going to do about our war.

Those discussions are as urgent as they are necessary. They must be responsible, thoughtful and honest.

We owe that much to Cpl. Bernard and his parents, and all of the soldiers who have been and will be sent to the Middle East.

It is common decency.

Journal Entries of AP Photographer Julie Jacobson Embedded With U.S. Marines in Afghanistan

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.

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