The Digital Journalist
Journalism Ethics in Wartime
December 2004

by Karen Slattery and Erik Ugland

Kevin Sites had no intention of igniting an international firestorm when he videotaped a U. S. Marine shooting a wounded Iraqi in a Fallujah mosque last month. But that is precisely what his release of these incendiary images has done.

Sites is a freelance journalist who was working for NBC and shooting pool video when the incident occurred. Like others who have captured a shocking image of battle on tape, Sites had to decide whether to conceal the video, to protect a soldier and his leaders, or to share the pictures with the rest of the world.

He chose to tell the truth.

Sites' dilemma was one that has vexed American journalists since they began covering U. S. military conflicts. Central to that dilemma is a clash of loyalties. To whom do wartime journalists owe the greatest loyalty? To the nation and its military? Or to the journalistic norm of truth-telling - the supreme tenet of American journalism. Sites says his greatest obligation was to tell the truth and provide an unbiased account of the incident. We agree.

There are a myriad of approaches to examining a moral conflict, but our focus here will be on the wartime journalists' conflicting loyalties. Sites has posted an open letter on his Weblog ( to the Marine unit involved. In it he explains how the controversial video came to be, why he chose to release it to the pool, and why he chose to use the tape to produce his own story about the shooting. We will consider Sites' reasoning and examine the potential harms related to his choosing one loyalty over another. We will also examine the roles that journalistic intent and the type of information involved play in this dilemma.

We argue that Sites made a morally appropriate choice. There is certainly room for disagreement, however, and we hope you will help extend this discussion by sending us your thoughts about Sites' decision and the roles and responsibilities of journalists during wartime.

First the facts. Sites is a former network producer and an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist. He was a war correspondent for about five years, and was a pool journalist embedded with the U. S. Marines during the recent combat in Fallujah.

Sites accompanied troops into a mosque where fighting had occurred the previous day. Ten dead and five wounded Iraqis had been left in the mosque overnight. On the day of the incident, Sites was in an outer courtyard when he heard shots fired inside. He entered the building and noted that three of the five wounded men had just been shot again. Sites was taping the scene when a Marine announced that one of the wounded men was faking death. The Marine shot and killed the wounded man as the camera rolled.

We do not know if the soldier acted properly. The military is investigating and will, we hope, reach a fair and just conclusion. But we do know that Sites faced the unhappy choice of whether to tell the story about an apparent violation of international law or ignore it. The story aired on NBC 48 hours later. Since then, Sites has received death threats and has been vilified by talk-radio hosts and others as being a traitorous, anti-war activist. Sites says he is simply a journalist who has tried to "play it straight down the middle."

In addition to the threats and insults, Sites has to live with the real and potential harms that might be attributed to his decision to release the tape to the pool. The Marine in question has been pulled from active combat while his case is investigated. The Marines' image has been tarnished and the military's tactics have been called into question at home and abroad. Predictably, the enemy has seized the opportunity for a propaganda "moment," condemning the soldier as a coward who violated international law. Additionally, it is not unlikely that the enemy will use the incident and the provocative images as an excuse to abuse or kill wounded U. S. soldiers.

Finally, Sites has paid a personal price. His decision has been called into question by Americans who would prefer to be shielded from the unpleasant realities of war.

Despite these harms, Sites writes in his Weblog that he very briefly considered destroying or withholding the tape. But he concluded that he had an obligation to make the footage available to others in the press pool who were depending on him for information. We believe that his assessment of his moral obligation to fellow journalists is correct. Sites argues that a journalist can only report a piece of the story, but that if all journalists tell their smaller stories truthfully, the public will eventually understand the larger story, or an approximation that is as close to the truth as is possible. Viewed in isolation, this video might seem dangerously inflammatory, but journalists have to trust that the public will view their work in the proper context - as small pieces as a larger and more complex mosaic. Sites' reasoning rightly argues for putting loyalty to the truth ahead of loyalty to the nation's war effort.

But do journalists' loyalty to the truth always trump their loyalty to the military and to the nation's war efforts? Not necessarily. Journalists' intent and the nature of the information involved must also be considered. Regarding intent, Sites made it clear that he knew that he could not control what others in the pool would do with the video, but he believed that NBC would handle it responsibly. He added information to his story that might help explain why the soldier shot the wounded man. And, he showed the tape to the Marine unit commander, offering to hold it until the military conducted an investigation. Sites was clearly aware of the potential harms that might result from his choice and he made efforts to minimize them.

The type of information involved also plays a crucial role in the resolution to this problem. Sites and other wartime journalists have a moral obligation to withhold some information from the public. Details related to troop movement, battle plans and military security are among the types that may be responsibly withheld. Disclosing this sort of information in an age of instant and global communication could have direct and deadly consequences.

But the information in Sites' story is different. It does not reveal vital military secrets or directly imperil troops. Rather, Sites simply witnessed an event that he says made him "heartsick." He saw an American Marine apparently violating international law by killing a wounded man who did not pose a threat. He knew the action was wrong and he reported it. We acknowledge that his story triggered a series of troublesome harms. However, we also believe that Sites avoided an even more egregious harm, and ultimately served the greater good, by releasing the tape.

Why is that important in this case? Theoretically, the war is being fought in the name of United States citizens whose government signed the Geneva Convention. When confronted with the news of an apparent instance of wartime misconduct, perhaps the citizens of the U. S. will insist that their government recommit to those laws of war which are grounded in respect for humankind. Or perhaps they will decide that these laws are unmanageable in combat and should be abandoned. Or maybe they will decide nothing at all.

Either way, the choice belongs to the public, enlightened by a responsible press. Sites acted in the best interest of a democratic nation when he released the tape and the details of the story.

See also:

© Karen Slattery and Erik Ugland

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.

Erik Ugland is an assistant professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in media ethics, law and policy.