WASHINGTON — The White House says it has photos of the dead Osama bin Laden and they're "gruesome." That raises a question in America's newsrooms: If the pictures are released, should they be published?
The short answer: It all depends upon your definition of "gruesome."
The potential release of photographs documenting the U.S. raid on bin Laden's Pakistani hideout presents the news media with a dilemma. The images are the very definition of news, but they're also likely to be horrifyingly graphic, the sort of thing that American newspapers and television networks avoid showing their readers and viewers.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that administration officials are still debating whether to make public any of the photos and video taken by U.S. military forces during and after the raid. The image cache includes grisly shots of bin Laden, who reportedly suffered facial and skull wounds above his left eye from gunshots fired by U.S. commandos.
Carney said officials are concerned about the "sensitivity" of releasing such photos because of their disturbing nature and because they could inflame anti-American sentiment around the world. But officials are also eager to rebut skepticism among bin Laden's supporters and sympathizers that reports of his death are part of a U.S. disinformation campaign and that he is still alive.
People in the news media are faced with a related, if somewhat different, issue: Would such obviously newsworthy pictures be so revolting that they'd create a wave of complaints?
"Obviously, I can't say whether or how we will run a photo we haven't even seen," said Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times. He added: "We generally avoid pictures that are gratuitously ghastly. But the key word is 'gratuitously,' meaning the images, besides being disturbing, don't have significant journalistic value. Pictures of Osama bin Laden dead certainly have significant journalistic value."
Associated Press director of photography Santiago Lyon said his organization would screen the material before distributing it to news outlets and would alert them to any "particularly graphic images" beforehand so that they could make their own calls.
CNN evaluates each image it broadcasts or publishes online but has no general policy about the use of grisly content, Washington producer Sam Feist said.
In 2006, for example, the network showed the battered faces of Saddam Hussein's dead sons, Uday and Qusay. The rationale parallels the argument in favor of running pictures of bin Laden's body: The photos provided direct evidence that the Husseins had actually been killed, he said.
"It sounds old-fashioned, but we are a family newspaper," said Liz Spayd, the Washington Post's managing editor. "We are mindful that people's children see the paper, and we don't want to publish anything gratuitously. At the same time, we don't want to hide what's happening."
A group of senior editors at the St. Petersburg Times also has been discussing the use of the photo in the newspaper and online at tampabay.com. The final decision will be made if and when the photo is actually released.