Ethics Matters: The Death Of Ambassador Stevens


Thursday September 13, many news organizations published a photo of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens either dead or dying after a terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. The ethics Committee would like to add some thoughts to the discussion on the use of this image. John Long, Steve Raymer, Peter Southwick and Donald Winslow (News Photographer Magazine editor) each contributed to this blog. An in-depth examination of these issues by Steve Raymer will appear in News Photographer Magazine but for today, this is a quick response to some of the questions being asked:

[LA Times home page showing picture of Ambassador Stevens' dead body]
By John Long, Ethics Committee Chair:

Photo editing is an art form. There are no absolutes. One person’s historical document is another’s inflammatory propaganda. Today we were presented with a case in point: a photo of Ambassador Chris Stevens being dragged through the streets of Benghazi, either dead or dying. I use the term “dragged through the streets” on purpose. These are also the words we used when the photo of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu during the1993 firefight in the Somali capital that became known as the infamous Black Hawk Down affair. In that old case, almost every newspaper in the United States, Europe, and Asia ran the photo. Were the same conditions in play today even though in Somalia it was a mob defiling an American and today it was a group trying to help the ambassador? Should the L. A. Times and many other newspapers and web sites have run the photo of Ambassador Stevens?

To begin, this is not an ethics issue for many of us. This is a taste issue with implications for families, our fellow citizens and their understanding of the Middle East and perhaps the upcoming presidential election.

We say taste because there is no lying, no deceit in this photo; it is an accurate depiction of what was happening in front of the camera at that time. If it is a matter of taste, you should ask the question, “does the public need this information in order to make informed decisions for society?” Does the public need to see this dying man, or the Falling Man, or the Black Hawk Down soldier, in order to fully understand what is happening? This is the art of photo editing.

Personally, as I get older the more I am inclined to use these photos. War is Hell and we should not be sugar coating reality. However, should we be inflaming the situation with photos that reflect a political agenda? We enjoy free speech but that does not allow us to yell “FIRE !!” in a crowded theater, unless there is a fire.

Does the photo today inform the discussion or inflame it? Does the public learn anything from this photo that they need to see in order to make informed decisions for our country?

Each newspaper, web site and television network must answer the question for themselves because each newspaper, web site and television network has a compact with its specific readers or viewers on what the limits of taste are for that publication. If I were still part of the editing staff at The Hartford Courant I would argue to use the photo inside. If I were working for the Daily News in NYC I would argue to run it on the front, in color. We all serve different expectations.

This is an ongoing discussion. Our hope is to bring some structure to the discussion. Below is a string of emails between the members of the committee and Don Winslow:

On Sep 13, 2012, at 13:54, Peter Southwick wrote:My initial reaction (after I gagged) was that this comes down to John’s tried and true distinction between ethics and taste. For me, it’s not an “ethics” question per se. There is nothing dishonest or incorrect in this photo. However, in my opinion it goes way over the line of taste judgment and has no place in any publication. It doesn’t lie to the public (an ethics violation), but it has no reason for being and serves no journalistic purpose other than shock value (a taste violation, to be sure).

On Sep 13, 2012, at 12:57 PM, Steve Raymer wrote:
I have tried this one on several colleagues and they agree that it is more taste issue than an ethical issue. Which, of course, still doesn’t let the profession or these newspapers off the hook in my view. There are still plenty of implication when you run this picture, from hurt to the parents, who live in Southern California, to inflaming anti-Muslim hatred.

On Sep 13, 2012, at 14:03, Donald Winslow wrote:
I agree that it is a matter of taste and local sensibilities but it also carries an ethical responsibility, I think. In that it can potentially be viewed as inflammatory language. My example of Somalia and Blackhawk Down, Kevin Carter’s vulture, Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl, Eddie Adams’ Saigon Execution were all, in their own way, inflammatory. So was Joe’s flag raising over Iwo Jima, in a different way. George Stock’s Buna Beach in Life was inflammatory in that Henry Luce and Roosevelt wanted to re-invigorate a weary and growing apathetic American populous to start buying War Bonds again because USA was going broke in the two wars. So yes, it’s taste, but it also carries with it the ethical yardstick of being potentially inflammatory, and if it were hate speech, racial slurs, or incited violence, it would be run through an ethical barometer.

On Sep 13, 2012, at 1:09 PM, Steve Raymer wrote:
That’s exactly my point, Donald, that it may be taste, but it’s inflammatory. There was an image going around yesterday of Libyans standing in front of the US Embassy in Tripoli with hand-made signs says they were sorry and were apologizing for all of their countrymen and women. How many papers used that on their front pages? From a foreign policy perspective, this image is trouble. For President Obama the image spells trouble.

On Sep 13, 2012, at 13:54, Peter Southwick wrote:I think the examples that Donald cites are all good ones, but I’m also wary (as someone who sat at the Page One desk of a major metro daily while these decisions were being made) of editing or pulling back images because they might inflame people, or for political reasons. That can be said of so many photos, and it’s a tough line to draw. I’m not saying it shouldn’t ever be done, but it’s a tough call every time.

By the way, my old paper (The Boston Globe) was likely the only major paper in the US that didn’t use the pilot being dragged through the street in Somalia. I argued for using it.